War with the Newts

Karel Capek
War with the Newts Cover

War with the Newts


Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Mild
Ace/Genderqueer characters: ? (Newts)
Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing concepts/imagery

Writing style: 5/5
Likable characters: 3/5
Plot/Concepts: 5/5

When Captain van Toch first encountered the sea-dwelling newts of Devil Bay, all he saw was an unusually intelligent animal species which could help him make bigger profits off pearl oysters. He could have never foreseen how his discovery would influence the direction of human history.

War with the Newts is among my favorite books, but it is not always easy reading. Not for lack of good writing, certainly! The author's voice is entertaining, witty, and sharply ironic. This is my second time reading War with the Newts, and I found myself amazed all over again by how far ahead of his time the author was. The book is one enormous critique of all the social forces of the day, many of which are still important "–isms" in our current society: racism, sexism, capitalism, nationalism, colonialism, speciesism, and so forth. Admirably, the book does not feel preachy, but merely shines a light on all the ways in which humans make fools of themselves in the name of higher causes. The political milieu of Europe in 1936 must have been an important influence, as this book was written three years before the beginning of World War II. The First World War, the Great War as it is called, had already ended years ago. It is a bit eerie reading some passages which so closely echo actual historical events.

I remembered War with the Newts for its treatment of the relationship between animals and humans, and that element all by itself is enough to make this a powerful story. The author does not shy away from humanity's tendency to hold contradictory and sometimes downright horrible attitudes toward all its fellow creatures, even those of roughly equal intelligence. And the newts are intelligent in the human sense—frighteningly intelligent, as they pick up language and the use of tools and weapons within a very short period of time. For much of the period during which the Newts were exponentially increasing in numbers and skill, the scientific community had no interest in their intelligence but rather in where they came from and what their official classification and name should be, while the rest of the world was busy putting them to work and figuring out in what ways they could be of use to humans. As the book goes on it becomes more and more obvious to the reader how ridiculously difficult it can be to draw a clear line between what is "just an animal" and what is a person, and I enjoyed that aspect quite a bit.

Of course, besides its literal meaning, the story of the Newts can also be taken as an allegory for the experiences of many oppressed peoples and victims of colonialism, complete with lynchings, poorly-conceived but well-intentioned attempts at educating Newts to be "civilized" members of white European society, appropriation of cultural ceremonies, and of course slavery. As stories of the exotic sea-dwelling creatures fill the newspapers, the effects of this sensationalism are thoroughly explored with all the matter-of-fact dark humor the author can muster on a huge range of topics. Can Newts be baptized? Should a human professor be ashamed to quote a Newt mathematician in a scholarly article? Shouldn't some Newts be taught to speak Czech, even though the country has no coastline? How did the discovery of Newts influence popular clothing fashions, media, and recreational activities?

There is no "main character" throughout; instead the tale is presented as one long history lesson—an entertaining one, thankfully. The narrator quotes from scholarly articles, interviews, and newspaper clippings collected by one Mr. Povondra, who was the doorman for G. H. Bondy, the man Captain van Toch approached with his discovery of the Newts. Bondy financed van Toch's pearl-fishing expeditions and helped him to propagate the Newts beyond their tiny origin-place of Devil Bay, before becoming the primary force behind expansion of the S-Trade (S being short for salamander or slave, whichever you like). Meanwhile Mr. Povondra became an obsessive collector of all things having to do with the Newts, so that at intervals he is often seen congratulating himself on being the catalyst for all these great and important world events. Other characters weave in and out just as frequently, each of them memorable in the way interesting characters from history might be, but not explored beyond their appearance in the news.

I must stress the satirical nature of this book, because there are a lot of statements in narrative about how things go which could really offend some people if taken seriously. There is a lot of racism, sexism, and general prejudice and stupidity in these pages, but it's for the purpose of showing just how ridiculous we humans can really be. Sometimes it's hard to tell what the author's true opinion is, but I believe that adds to the appeal of the book, because it invites the reader to examine their own opinions. One great example of this is the chapter on "The Sex Life of the Newts". Yes, this is actually one of my favorite chapters! In the course of this chapter, the evidence seemed to suggest that in general Newt females are superior to the males—the males, as it turns out, are practically unneeded for purposes of procreation, since Newt eggs become fertilized merely by a very precise change in water acidity. But the narrator takes all this biological evidence and twists it so that in the end, of course, the males turn out to be the superior Newts! I almost laughed. It just goes to show how the privileged in any society will always come up with an interpretation which suits their agenda.

As for the question of gender, and genderqueer or ace characters, the Newts as a species are described as "sexually frigid" outside of mating time, and they don't seem to adhere to human gender roles either—in fact the gender of most Newt characters is never brought up. When a Newt's name is mentioned it is always a male name, unfortunately, but this does not necessarily mean that the Newt is actually male, since they often take names for themselves. Being subject to human culture as time goes on, we can assume that some of the newer generation learned to imitate certain human gender roles or sexual roles and behaviors, but it probably did not come naturally. The human characters mentioned in the news clips and so forth are predominantly male, but this is more a reflection of the society the book is commenting on. The main female characters run the gamut of stereotypes. There's melodramatic airhead Lily, who became a famous actress by self-insertion in the first video taken of the Newts. Then there's the woman who founded the boarding school for the proper moral and social education of young Newts. And there's Povondra's wife who sits darning socks and listening indulgently while her husband pays no attention to anything but his own interests. The only reason this doesn't bother me much is because of the satirical style. I can't say that any of the human characters strike me as possibly genderqueer or ace, except perhaps Lily's lover Abe, whose objections to Lily's exhibitionism could also be interpreted as possessiveness or an old-fashioned sense of modesty.

When it comes to actual content, it is a difficult book to read due to the horrible treatment of the Newts, which is described dispassionately but with enough detail that you can feel the horror of the scenes. It is also taken as a matter of course—an inevitable if unfortunate consequence of the need to keep costs low and profits high. And why shouldn't it be, when reality is much the same for certain types of animals? Why shouldn't it be, when the driving of natives off their land was seen as an unfortunate necessity, as were the deaths of Africans on slave ships across the Atlantic? Suffice it to say that the book does an excellent job at showing how what seems normal to one culture or time period can seem horrific to another. In fact the actual war with the Newts doesn't take place until the last third of the book, and by that time the war itself seems in some ways less disturbing than the events leading up to it.

All in all, War with the Newts has so much to offer, not only in terms of intriguing events and great writing, but also questions and ideas. Its pages are packed with thought-provoking controversial statements which could keep a discussion group busy for months, and in my opinion it is not nearly as well known and discussed as it should be! The fact that it was relevant in its day and continues to be intensely relevant some eighty years later is a testament to its brilliance (or else it is a testament to how much human society still needs to improve). Karel Capek also wrote the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), from which the word "robot" first came into use. I greatly respect his contributions to science fiction, and intend to eventually read whatever other stories of his I can get my hands on, because if it's anything like War with the Newts, I know I won't be disappointed!