Malcolm's Reviews > The Absolute at Large

The Absolute at Large by Karel Čapek
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Jul 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-east-central-europe, lit-like, alt-worlds

I hesitate to call Čapek's work science fiction because of the childish/nerdish and fantastical associations of the term; speculative fiction might be a better term. Unlike much science fiction (of the Dr Who mould) Čapek's work is actually grounded in extant scientific knowledge and for that reason all the more astounding. Part of this story might be the atomic industry's fantasy – an energy source that burns any material, breaks down its essential form, and destroys all to leave no residue: the ideal green energy. Alas, it also releases a potent spiritual force contained in all matter (God or some such other universal essential – known here as The Absolute).

This force is however not universal and adapts itself to local cultural conditions leading to mass outbreaks of fundamentalist-like actions and practice, and eventually global war and close to absolute destruction. The authorial voice shifts elegantly between 'the chronicler' (who from time to time alludes to the challenges of global history as a means to justify attention to the specific) and the chronicler's more distant reporting; the form appears in part to be a series of vignettes that operate in part in isolation but weave together to build an overall integrated narrative (much like some of his other fiction). In all, the book is engaging and a delight.

Čapek's fiction shows a concern for relations between humanity and the non-human world (see is simply stunning War of the Newts, and the fabulous play Rossum's Universal Robots, which introduced the word robot into English), and once again in this book he explores the problem of human meddling in the things we know little of, critiques unfettered greed and the quest for profit, and reveals a startlingly sharp and inventive mind – which when read alongside his essays and public commentary on central Europe between the Wars shows him to be one of the great unsung thinkers of the 1st half of the 20th century. Simply marvellous.
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