Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large (1922) – God is in the Machine: Capek may not be a name everyone is familiar with, but his inclusion into science fiction is undeniable with his introduction of the word ‘robot’ into common language through his 1920 play R.U.R. Yet, the Czech playwright and novelist is far from being a household name in the annals of modern discussion on science fiction greats.
In fact, “The Absolute at large” has been noted by R.D. Mullen from Science Fiction Studies as being “one of the genuine masterpieces of SF”, but noted that “it has surely had no great influence on popular SF”. This is something important to note when diving into this particular release, as one can argue it is more successful as a satirical look at consumerism and religion over a science-fiction story. However, there is still appeal to be found in the work by fans of classic European literature and sci-fi enthusiasts.
The novel chronicles the invention of the “Karburator”, a device that allows unlimited energy production generated from minute resources–a single chunk of coal can keep it running for years. However, the machine emits a peculiar byproduct of religious fervor that causes people in the vicinity to both hallucinate and perform actual miracles after prolonged exposure. Even more troubling, the machines which evoke the ‘absolute’ (God) are able to produce their own goods and sway the commercial landscape with charity over profitability. Picture corporations owned by religious communes and never-ending production chains making mounds of useless materials.
As such, the downfall of mankind becomes inevitable from the very conception of the ‘absolute’ and the reader is given both first-hand accounts from the author, as well as stories of isolated madness across the world, as the ‘Karburator’ penetrates every corner of humanity.
The manner of delivery is one that jumps between reflections on society, morality, and religion with a playful wit that can be extremely entertaining. Consequently, the message behind the work can be elusive to pin down, and even for myself coming back to this novel a decade later, I found my own perspective of it altered. Notably, it is easy to say that the work is opposed to religion, but there is room to interpret it as pro-human first and foremost.
Essentially, the book seems to claim there is a place for religion, but that the man-made concepts are something beyond the power of even God– he did not invent commerce or politics and has no place in it. There are even moments in the novel where the author admits his words are not meant to be blasphemous. At the same time, Capek’s views in this book are certainly up for debate but make for a wonderful talking point about the book nonetheless.
Its views on commercialism and fanaticism are approached in a method that is still applicable today. Certainly, a modern audience won’t find much value in outdated industrial industries, but the way the production of goods is discussed is still relevant. Replace the idea of religious worship with celebrity worship, and the production of clocks with phones and the text is easy to navigate in a modern context. Mind you, these may not be the best examples but rough ones that convey how easy it is to take the words of Capek and apply them to the modern era–the age of the work does not make it archaic beyond comprehension.
However, the most enjoyable aspect of the book has to come from the humor within.
*Slight spoilers ahead for Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large
Capek gives some glorious visions of absurdity, from a tack factory that produces an endless number of the commodity to the point that there is an industry around hauling and hiding them away, to the tale of a carousel owner who starts a religion based around his machine as it begins to float across the land to recruit new followers.
Furthermore, the dialogue between people can be humorously witty: when one man is overcoming the effect of the ‘absolute’ his friend asks him what symptoms he felt, and he retorts “The love of thy neighbor” expanding that “I never knew it was possible to feel so much love”.
*Slight spoilers end
The book is full of many witty comedic moments that make it easily accessible to enjoy just as a satirical piece without trying to dig deeper into the meaning. Furthermore, the way that Capek describes the effect of the ‘Karburator’ and how it begins to affect different people based on region, occupation, and cultural beliefs makes for a deceptively grandiose read across 240 pages.
There is a lot that can be broken down, assessed, and discussed in The Absolute at Large, or you can just approach it strictly as a work of satire from one of the greatest, and less celebrated, minds in science fiction. Regardless, the book is a true gem and one that deserves to be checked out or revisited.
I got my copy of The Absolute at Large through the University of Nebraska Press as part of their Bison Frontiers of Imagination Series.
The Forgotten Fiction Grade: YEA (read it!)
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“Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large (1922) – God is in the Machine” was written by Adam Symchuk.