First, a WARNING: steer clear of the online versions of the David Wylie translation, which you’ll find either at Internet Archive (IA) or a mirror of Project Gutenberg. It has nothing to do with the quality of Wylie’s translation and everything to do with a badly botched scan and formatting, which makes the central chapter of the book a quite literally unreadable mess. If you’re looking for free online copies, IA also hosts different prints of the Weatherall translation, and they’re just fine. As are, of course, any physical copies you may find at your library or bookstore. If you’re still pressed for a copy, shoot me a line and I’ll steer you towards other options.
The Solute Book Club is swinging far away from vomas’ offering last month — a comical SF whatist by one of the genre’s most classic writers — to… uh, well, another comical SF whatsit by one of the genre’s most classic writers. But the similarities end there: it’ll be evident from the first pages of Čapek’s novel that we’re dealing with a different beast entirely. War with the Newts is deeply strange in a very different way from Dick’s novel: The Galactic Pot-Healer is a conventional narrative with wildly unconventional content, while Newts is just a wildly unconventional novel at the formal level. I suspect some of you might find that exhilarating, others off-putting, but my hope is that you’ll at least remember it as a singular experience. There’s just nothing quite like it.
I don’t want to spoil anything about that experience, so I’ll offer just a few non-spoilery pointers to get you started:
Newts positions itself as an alternate history (of sorts), and Čapek dances through a bunch of different styles and genres and points of view, so don’t get too attached to any particular characters or threads. In fact, it might be worth asking if the book does have a main character (I think there are two defensible answers. The salamanders are not one of them, for reasons we’ll talk about later.)
Because of this fragmentation, some of the chapters could even stand as independent short stories. If there’s a comparable book in modern American pop culture, it might be something like Max Brooks’ World War Z in its fragmented but global scope, though Newts is far more virtuosic, funny, and bizarre. The translations don’t always get this across, but the style is firmly tongue-in-cheek, whether Čapek is parodying exotic adventure novels or… well, parodying scientific papers. This is largely a comic novel, and it makes me laugh out loud quite a bit.
Čapek himself was a novelist and playwright, author of classic detective stories and works of “noetic” fiction, fascinated by philosophy and civic engagement and nation-building, perhaps most at home as an amateur gardener. But it’ll be clear from the way he approaches this novel that he was first and foremost a journalist. The small details matter.
I’m especially curious how you all will feel about the ending…
Keep in mind this book was written nearly a hundred years ago.