Review: The Absolute at Large

The Absolute at Large The Absolute at Large by Karel Čapek
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Capek's novel lands as an interesting thought experiment that falls a little bit flat in its execution; it's satire but not entirely satisfying.  This makes sense given that it was his first novel.  It doesn't have the finesse that comes with R.U.R. and from what I understand, is not as nearly as compelling as War of the Newts.  Yet, it's a curious and fun novel all the same.  The story focuses on the creation of a machine (the karburator) that is able to produce nearly infinite energy from a very limited amount of matter.  It's set to revolutionize the world except that it has one significant side effect.  When it abstracts the energy, it also puts out something else--a spiritual essence (the absolute).  This absolute just hovers in the areas wherein the karburator is working and instantly inspires the people with an overwhelming sense of the spiritual. They experience a spiritual transformation that even sometimes, comes with miracles. Additionally, the karburator seems to make machines continue on with work, well after people are not longer working at them.  As the karburator is deployed throughout the world, it also triggers a series of religious sects and eventually, all-out war.  And that's where it's curiosity peaks.  After that, it becomes a bit episodic as the narrator jumps about from different scenes and events, patching together how the events transpire over a decade or so.  The plot itself starts to feel directionless, yet the writing has some interesting elements to it.  Capek plays with a chronicler who is self-aware of his audience, delivers some biting commentary about capitalism, and shares some interesting insight about why "God" is so hard to understand.  For instance, Capek spends some time on discussing how pins at a factory keep massively producing on their own and become meaningless when produced by a machine; this is both a nod and possible condemnation of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and emphasizing the division of later. It is a point that Capek will return to in R.U.R. when it is no longer an essence that overproduces but "robots" that come to replace and diminish human capacity and capabilities.  So these glimmers of critiques are found throughout the novel, which makes it an interesting read from a critical perspective, if not from an entertaining one.

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