A nation of news threatens to take over the world
When a crackpot seaman named Captain J. van Toch encounters a clever breed of giant newts on a small island in Sumatra, his discoveries bring him to the attention of financier Mr Gussie H. Bondy. The extraordinary thing about the newts is that they have an above average intelligence. They can speak basic human language and are adept at learning industrial techniques. Captain van Toch has them trained to farm pearls. The captain also arms his newts so they can defend themselves against sharks, a major predator that keeps their numbers in check. The newt population consequently explodes and moves to all corners of the earth.
Mr Bondy, the industrialist, forms a “Salamander Syndicate” which exploits newt labour for commercial gain. As the newts are trained to perform ever more technically complex engineering feats, they start to use their new knowledge to assert themselves. A series of earthquakes start to cause worldwide havoc and it’s discovered that their root cause might be from the ocean. Could it the newts?
Czech author Karel Capek wrote this broad spectrum satire in 1936. Everything gets a good roasting: capitalism, modern markets, science, politics and diplomacy. The novel does an expert job of ridiculing human vanity. Humans take it for granted that newts can be used as a source of free labour, basically slaves, but fool themselves into believing they are treating their workforce humanely. The sections detailing cruel experiments on the newts remind that animal welfare has hardly progressed at all.
The novel has an interesting, patchwork style, with no main characters or protagonist. The story reads like a fictionalised history, with excerpts from newspaper articles, academic studies and memoirs forming part of the narrative. A lot of the humour comes from these sections that lampoon official scientific papers and self-aggrandising writers and explorers.
Written against a backdrop of rising Nazism (War with the Newts was banned by the Nazis in 1940), this Science Fiction classic offers a comprehensive and penetrating critique of politics, science and industry. A novel that is astonishingly relevant today and unique for its imaginative and intellectual powers.
War with the News, by Kapel Carek. Penguin Modern Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books