Karel Čapek Energies: The Absolute at Large as Proto-Cli-Fi Literature

Andy Hageman |

Science fiction is a genre finely-geared to the work of re-imagining global warming at this crucial time when Gaia Hypothesis innovator James E. Lovelock is claiming in A Rough Ride to the Future that we need to shift strategies from abatement strategies to consolidating and preparing for inevitable ecological catastrophe. Whether we take Lovelock’s direction or pursue alternatives to it, science fiction texts engaged with climate, and with global warming more precisely, help us analyze our current ideological blind-spots concerning this issue and imagine how to live and be ecological now and in the hotter days to come. The work of the independent journalist, Dan Bloom, who coined the term ‘Cli-Fi’ and has been using it in blog posts since 2012, has initiated attention for the contemporary uptick in climate fiction, or cli-fi, in literature and film as well as in the academic studies of these texts by professors like Stephanie LeMenager. This short essay expands the horizon of cli-fi studies by analyzing an SF novel on energy and emissions written before global warming awareness as we know it – Karel Čapek’s The Absolute at Large from 1922.

While much of the popular media forays into cli-fi focus on very recent films and novels, science fiction has a long history of engagement with matters of ecology, climate, and energy. This history extends from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol Trilogy (2004-2007) and brilliant Mars Trilogy (1993-1996) back to nineteenth-century SF. In the recent monograph Ukrainian Science Fiction Walter Smyrniw poignantly notes that while Western SF imagined new machines like spacecraft, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ukrainian SF obsessed with energy sources, largely solar (126). Now is the time to engage with the rich and textured history of global warming and/or relevant energy imaginations in science fiction. To that end, I offer here a brief synopsis of The Absolute at Large followed by three critical points to help study and teach the text as proto-cli-fi literature. I hope both to encourage academic attention to Čapek’s fine novel and to provide a tripartite framework that can be applied to other science fictions produced before yet relevant to global warming awareness.

Karel Čapek, manuscript

The Absolute at Large opens with C.H. Bondy, CEO of the Metallo-Electrical Company, reading a newspaper ad for an invention designed by Marek, an old technical school classmate. On something of a lark, Bondy visits Marek and is introduced to the Karburator, an astonishingly efficient atomic energy device designed to power factories and electricity networks with astonishingly little fuel. As Marek introduces Bondy to this invention that he claims “means a bigger revolution in technical methods than Watt’s invention of the steam-engine,” he says, “Tell me yourself, Bondy, what is the greatest problem of modern industry?” Bondy replies “Doing business,” but Marek says, “No, business has nothing to do with it, I tell you. It’s combustion” (8-9). When Bondy then sees the Karburator in action, he discovers that it has one more revolutionary attribute besides its combustion efficiency. Instead of carbon dioxide, the Karburator emits The Absolute, which Marek explains, via Spinoza, is God. Bondy is shocked, yet he foregoes consideration of this emission by-product, purchases the rights to the Karburator, and immediately begins mass producing and selling it. The world descends into economic chaos even though people are freed from mining and other extremely hazardous forms of labor. Religiosity escalates worldwide, but because every religion and sect lays claim to the emitted Absolute as their own notion of God, conflict turns into world war. Finally, SPOILER ALERT: the novel ends with world peace as a group of characters sit down to sausages and sauerkraut at a local tavern.

The first critical point is Čapek’s representation of the carbon-based energy by-product as something unfathomably vast, beyond the scope of human imagination. Early in the novel, the inventor Marek explains to Bondy the affects of his close contact with the Karburator’s emissions: “Among other things, I had visions of gigantic, swampy primeval forests, overgrown with mosses and inhabited by weird monsters – probably because the Karburator was burning Upper Silesian coal, which is one of the oldest formations. Possibly the God of the Carboniferous Age is in it” (28-29). God as carbon-fueled industrial emission turns out to provide an productively provocative figure to parallel with global warming. The narrative blames the chaos and violence that ensue on the inability of humanity to apprehend something massive suddenly inhabiting, and thereby disrupting, the familiar finitude of Earth. Even though everyone in the novel can name the cumulative emission, as a thing, it effectively eludes their intellectual comprehension. As such, the earthlings in The Absolute at Large experience a predicament akin to our own today. To be fair, global warming is neither infinite nor a deity, and yet, the magnitude of its finitude makes it practically impossible to apprehend and/or imagine. As Timothy Morton puts it in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, “Global warming plays a very mean trick. It comes very, very close, crashing into our beaches and forcing us to have cabinet meetings underwater to draw attention to our plight, and yet withdrawing from our grasp in the very same gesture, so that we can only represent it by using computers with tremendous processing speed” (133). Morton argues that we need to imagine global warming as an object, a hyperobject to be exact, and Čapek’s novel delivers a ready-made science fiction experiment in precisely that vein of imagination. For, even though The Absolute predates global warming awareness as we know it, the novel aims at making visible the massive consequences of the carbon-fueled capitalist industrialization of global production and consumption – an aim that contemporary cli-fi shares and could perhaps refine by revisiting energy and climate SF that has come before.

'Karel Čapek' (1967) Photo: Benjamín Skála Artist: Josef Adámek

‘Karel Čapek’ (1967) Photo: Benjamín Skála Artist: Josef Adámek

The second critical point is the fact that once the Absolute, or God, is in the world, He takes over and intensifies all industrial production all by Himself. In this way, Čapek engages with the idea of industrial capital as an autonomous being that races to its own end by ignoring the finite limits of materials and the circulation and consumption of goods. Late in the novel, Marek explains to Bondy that the Absolute’s unrelenting drive to increased production and ultimately to economic collapse was due to a particular blind-spot on the part of the Absolute: “He did not know that the laws of the market are stronger than the laws of God” (135). Marek’s statement is a paradox, for, no laws can be superior to those of God, and yet, when the Absolute identifies with industrial capitalist production, even He ignores this truth. Does not the same hold for economic attitudes today in the face of global warming? Though the very conditions of existence of the market hinge upon fundamental continuation of climatological, as well as other ecological, conditions, we act as if this is not the case. Thus, the novel identifies contradictions internal to industrial capitalism that drive it, us, and the planet ever faster toward catastrophic climatological change.

The third and final point to make is that the social revolution caused by the Karburator and the Absolute do eventually pass and peace is restored. Crucial to note, however, is that people do not return to lives of innocence or ideals that purportedly preexisted the energy-emission-driven revolution. There can be no return to the carbon-fuelled world of the past – in Čapek’s diegetic world or in our own. Instead, peace comes by breaking with the overall ideology that accompanied that culture of production and its fuels. Poignantly, Čapek articulates this radical break as a new way of being that means being with others beyond mere tolerance or parallel coexistence. At the close of the novel, one of the people at the tavern table remarks, “The world will be an evil place as long as people don’t believe in other people” (241). The religious figure in the group, Father Jost, responds to this by asking the barman to prepare the sauerkraut the next day in the foreign, Moravian style that they have previously denigrated. Although this ending may feel rather pat, it arrives only through a worldwide religious war and global economic crisis. In other words, Čapek’s utopian openness to alternative sauerkraut did not come without people and the planet first paying a severe price. That said, because this is a Čapek novel, its happy ending is deeply humanist and must be read as a proto-cli-fi step towards a social imaginary in which believing in others means believing in global warming and all the other objects it contacts besides human beings.

I wish to close by once again inviting others to seek out, work with, and share other proto-cli-fi science fiction produced before global warming awareness and by remarking that my synopsis and brief critique fall far short of describing how wild, complex, and fun The Absolute at Large is for scholars and our students.

Karel Čapek’s Enduring Message, recorded Christmas Eve 1937 (Radio Praha):

 

References

Bloom, Dan. “The Next Big Genre: ‘Cli-Fi’ – Climate Fiction, in which ‘Mad Max’ Meets ‘The Road’.” The Wrap: Covering Hollywood. 26 January 2012. <http://www.thewrap.com/movies/blog-post/next-big-genre-cli-fi-climate-fiction-which-mad-max-meets-road-34811/ >.

Čapek, Karel. The Absolute at Large. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

LeMenager, Stephanie. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lovelock, James E. The Rough Ride to the Future. New York: Overlook, 2015. [Kindle Edition 2014]

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Smyrniw, Walter. Ukrainian Science Fiction: Historical and Thematic Perspectives. New York: Peter Lang, 2013.

 

Bio

Andy Hageman is Assistant Professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, USA, where he teaches American literature, film, science fiction, and ecomedia. He researches intersections of technology, ecology, and ideology, and he has published essays on texts and topics that range from David Lynch and Chinese cinema to Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and critical video games.

 

Image (top): The Absolute at Large book cover reproduced by kind permission of the University of Nebraska Press

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