Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robot

Ninety years ago today, the word robot entered the science fiction lexicon. It came by of the Czech language play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. In the years since, robots have been unceasingly abused, or alternately, unceasingly rebellious against their human masters--at least in fiction.

The word “robot” derives from the Czech word robota which means “work” or “labor,” and figuratively “drudgery.” The word was supposedly suggested by Čapek’s brother, Josef. Over time, it’s all but replaced “automaton” which had been previously used for mechanical beings in English.

Interestingly, the robots in R.U.R. aren’t mechanical, but are instead biological constructs--more like what GURPS (Biotech and Transhuman Space) call bioroids (a term they borrowed from the work of Masamune Shirow)--than Robbie, or R2D2. The play clearly has them constructed, though, not grown like synthetic bioorganisms in other science fiction.

In the world of the City, I think there probably is an island where a scientist from Ealderde, Karel Rozum, has already fired up his vats and molds, and made his first organisms from alchemical protoplasm. He’s got a dungeon full of deformities and malformed monsters, the detritus of working the kinks out in his process. But he’ll get it right, eventually...and then what?


Chris Kutalik said...

Nice write up.

In Czech the root word spins off a number of cool sounding words like "robotnik" (worker).

When I was living back in the mother country whenever I heard that word in particular, this incongruent mental image of a retro-50s Robbie-like robot wearing a black beret and a fake paste-on goatee would pop into my head.

Unknown said...

I am living in Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian (a Slavic language) word for work is also rabotia (работия) and it is the terms used for "working" coffee machines to working hours of a business.

Trey said...

@CKutalik - Ha! I think "The Robotniks" would be a cool 60s-esque band name.

@TGC - Interesting. It apparently has cognates in all the Slavic languages.

Unknown said...

Really? I did not know this. Thank you, sir, for enlightening me.

*makes note of origin of "robot".