Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, April 29, 2018


In my previous post, I reviewed Blade Runner 2049. Most know that the original Blade Runner was based on the Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, most don’t know that the basic premise behind the novel long predates it. Like so much of the modern world it’s rooted in the Diesel Era.

On January 25th, 1921 the play RUR or Rossum’s Universal Robots premiered. Written by Karel Capek, RUR was a smash international success. The play’s storyline should be all too familiar to us,

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), from synthetic organic matter. They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term: they are living flesh and blood creatures rather than machinery and are closer to the modern idea of androids or replicants. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. (Source: Wikipedia)

Image from the original play of R.U.R
In addition to Blade Runner, the play has ties to the Dieselpunk television program Batman: The Animated Series. In the two-part episode Heart of Steel, a machine named HARDAC created mechanical replicants of people with the goal of replacing humans, which is clearly similar plot to RUR.

Not only was the episode plot inspired by the play but it also contained several nods to it as well as to the movie Blade Runner. The name of the creator of HARDAC machine was Karl Rossum, which is an obvious combination of a variant of the playwright Karel Capek with the name ‘Rossum’ who was the inventor of the robots in the play. Interestingly, Karl Rossum was voiced by William Sanderson, who played the genetic designer J.K. Sebastian in Blade Runner. In addition, one of the robots in the episode is seen driving a car with “RUR” as the license plate number.

HARDAC from Batman: he Animated Series
One can't help but notice the similarities of RUR to the SYFY channel's reimagined Battlestar Galactica. In this rebooted series we find that the Cylons had been created by humans as slave labor and had 40 years earlier rebelled against humanity. And like RUR we find that all but a small number of the human race are destroyed by their creations.

Capek’s gift to us is more than his Proto-Dieselpunk play, which sparked so many science fiction stories. It was Capek who coined the English word ‘robot’, which he based on the Czech word ‘robotnik’, which means ‘slave’.

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