RUR is a 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel Capek. It is the source of the word robot (meaning “slave”) and the idea of designing artificial lifeforms to perform work.
In the play, a company called Rossum’s Universal Robots has perfected a way to manufacture artificial lifeforms. These “robots” are not mechanical devices, but are “manufactured” in their plant and are almost identical to humans in every way.
The play discusses in a very far sighted way the gains and losses of allowing robots to do everything. The robots are so cheap that they perform all types of work, and even fight wars for humans against other robot armies. Humans have nothing to do. Food and clothing become almost free, but no one earns any money so governments are essentially welfare states.
Helena, a member of the League of Humanity, wants to liberate robots, but discovers that the robots have no concept of need or desire. They just do their jobs. She convinces one of the staff to modify the robots so that they develop self awareness.
The result is that robots know that they are being exploited; a worldwide revolt occurs, and the robots kill every living man, woman, and child. Ironically, the only survivors left are on the island where the robots were made. Their only bargaining chip is that they hold the formula on how to make new robots, since that is the one thing the robots cannot do. While trying to find some way to go on living, they discover that Helena had deliberately destroyed the formula years before. The robots break in and a massacre follows.
Years later, the robots rule the world, but they are slowly dying out from accident and injury. They kept one human, Alquist, alive to try to rediscover the formula, but he is only a clerk, and has no idea how to proceed. The robots offer him some of their own to dissect and try to reverse engineer the process, but he tells them it is hopeless.
While working, he discovers that two robots have developed feelings for each other, and are even willing to die to save each other. Alquist feels that nature has some how created a way for life to go on, and sends them away with the hope that a new race will be born from their love.
Karel Capek was a free thinker writer, and was the #2 man on the Gestapo’s hit list in Czechoslovakia. He died of double pneumonia not long after the Nazis invaded his country.
RUR has influenced, directly or indirectly, countless thousands of books, stories, and films, and even the development of robots in the real world. Some of my favorite film examples are Bladerunner, Land of the Dead, Ex Machina, and even Jurassic Park.
When the play was performed in the 1920s, the robots were often shown as very mechanical, often with large bulky boxes on their chests. This may have been for the audiences to help differentiate the actors, but it conflicts with dialogue from the play. The robots are actually ALMOST human in every way. This vision of robots was copied in the early Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon serials, and was the idea of robots up into the early 1960s.
RUR explores what it means to be human, the dangers of “can we do it” vs “should we do it”, and the exploitation of others. It is not a long play, just an introduction and three acts, and can be read in one sitting. I have my own copy, but for your enjoyment I have included a link to the ebook version of the entire play below.