and Saw a Beast Rise up Out of the Sea.
This apocalyptic vision is a fitting introduction to Karel Capek's dystopian masterpiece, War With the Newts. Capek described in an interview how the idea for War With The Newts came to him and serves as a good synopsis of the book:
"I had written the sentence, 'You mustn't think that the evolution that gave rise to us was the only evolutionary possibility on this planet. . . . that cultural developments could be shaped through the mediation of another animal species. If the biological conditions were favorable, some civilization not inferior to our own could arise in the depths of the sea. . . . Would it do the same stupid things mankind has done? Would it invite the same historical calamities? What would we say if some animal other than man declared that its education and its numbers gave it the sole right to occupy the entire world and hold sway over all creation?" Out of this thought process War With the Newts Was Born.
The plot is straightforward. The master of a steamer, Captain van Toch, comes across a rather curious breed of newts in an isolated lagoon near Sumatra. He discovers that they are intelligent and capable of communication. They lack, however, the ability to open easily oysters for food because of their short arms. He takes a knife and shows them how to use it. Next thing you know they have used his knife to open thousands of oysters, enough to provide the newts with food and the Captain with a large supply of pearls. Captain van Toch takes groups of newts and plants them in lagoons across the coastlines and lagoons of Asia. They are extraordinarily industrious. Before long newts become a worldwide rage. Every nation in the world uses newts to perform Herculean tasks of underwater and coastal development. The newts do not demand salaries. They merely ask for heavy equipment and munitions to facilitate these underwater projects. In short order the manufacture and supply of arms and equipment for newts becomes the single most important part of the world's economy.
Despite some increasingly violent skirmishes between newts and man no nation is willing to cease providing weapons to the newts. Before long the newts revolt, led by the Great Salamander (an apparent parody of Hitler), and announce that they will start destroying the earth, continent by continent in order to provide more coastline for the growing newt population. Despite this threat the nations of the earth continue to provide arms to the newts. The resultant battle is over quickly. Mountains are leveled, continents are turned into a series of islands and what is left of man finds its way to the Alps, or Rocky Mountains, or Himalayas.
As the story concludes, the author engages in a dialogue with himself and asks himself whether this is the end of man. After a great deal of soul searching he responds that perhaps the newts will take on all of the characteristics of the human race and find a way to destroy themselves. When that day occurs, perhaps humanity will recover what it gave away so readily.
War With the Newts is a fascinating book on many levels. The idea that the story is premised on the notion of concurrent evolutionary trends predates much landmark work that has been done since the book was written. It is also important to note that War With the Newts was written in 1936. The Nazis had obtained full control of Germany, Mussolini's fascists ruled Italy, and Stalin's purges were in full swing. Capek was devoted to the new Czech Republic and was an ardent proponent of the ideals of democracy. By 1936 the rest of Europe had already taken many strides down the road to appeasement. Capek's pessimistic vision of the fate of humanity is well grounded in contemporary events. War With the Newts may be viewed as much as a parable of contemporary events as a foretelling of a dark future. Finally, Capek is an excellent writer. His prose is full of wit and wry diversions. His chapter on the mating habits of the newts struck me as a classic parody of the human mating habits of his contemporary Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.
The following excerpt from a poem written by Capek after the bombing of the town of Badajoz during the Spanish Civil War serves as a fitting summation of the world view that permeates War With the Newts.
When this century collapses, dead at last,
and its sleep within the dark tomb has begun,
come, look down upon us, world, file past
and be ashamed of what our age has done.
Inscribe our stone, that everyone may see
what this dead era valued most and best:
science, progress, work, technology
and death - but death we prized above the rest.
Almost seventy years after its publication the message of War With the Newts still resonates.
Capek's War With the Newts is a wonderful, thought provoking book.