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Literature / War with the Newts

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Aliens, zombies, robots, apes, sure... but newts!?

War with the Newts is a 1936 satirical science-fiction novel by Czech author Karel Čapek.

The plot does not have a single protagonist, but begins with Czech Captain Van Toch, who discovers a species of remarkably intelligent giant newts around an island near Sumatra. The newts are initially used to support local pearl farmers, but their usefulness in a wide range of industries becomes increasingly apparent. Soon, virtually the entire world is dependent on newt labor and soldiers. In spite of learning speech and human culture, the newts suffer extreme exploitation from their human masters, leading to hostilities between the two species that culminate in the eponymous war.

Along the way, the novel sharply satirizes a wide swath of westernized culture in the 1930s, including Hollywood, racism, Nazism and the global arms race. The plot even foretells the Munich Agreement, except Czechoslovakia is China, and Germany is the Newts.


  • Bilingual Bonus/Fun with Foreign Languages: For five languages. There is a group of five scientists, the most renowned biologist of the time in field of fish parasites, segmented worms, plant biology, ciliates and aphids: P. L. Smith, W. Kleinschmidt, Charles Kovar, Louis Forgeron and D. Herrero. The surnames mean "smith" or "blacksmith".
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The final chapter is titled "The author speaks to himself". He stops the story as a deus ex machina character and asks himself whether he feels sorry for the human race and their sad fate.
  • Bridal Carry: A wanna-be star invokes this trope when she demands she be carried. She feels fabulous and as light as a feather, while her lover is less comfortable and thought she wouldn't be as heavy.
  • Downer Ending: Newts are about to take over the world, and Povondra is dying, guilt-ridden, as he considers himself responsible. However, the author then starts an argument with an internal voice, that tells him that he can't finish the story like that. He eventually envisions a war between the different kind of Newts in which they destroy themselves, and humanity can retake what remains of Earth.
  • Fictional Document: The novel contains many fictitious newspaper clippings about the Newts.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The Czech original novel has tons of Gratuitous English to spice it up and give it a feel of exotic lands and the life on the sea. There is some Gratuitous German, already lurking as Black Speech connected with Those Wacky Nazis. "Solche Erfolge erreichen nur Deutsche Molche." (Only German newts accomplish such great things.)
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: An interesting example of this trope that ties this tendency to human culture instead of biology. In the Distant Finale, Newts split into warring factions and drive themselves extinct. It is described as a direct result of them learning the ideas of nationalism from humans and replicating humanity's xenophobic and militaristic modes of behaviour, learning to hate each other.
  • It's All My Fault: When the use of the Newts has positive effects, Povondra likes to claim that it's all thanks to him, because he let van Toch in. When the war breaks out, and the Newts reach Czechoslovakia, he feels horrible guilt. His son, however, tells him that it isn't really his fault; everyone is guilty.
  • The Klan: In the early parts of the novel, Klansmen channel their anti-Newt paranoia into increasingly vicious attacks against Afro-Americans. Later, as Newts become more numerous and visible, the KKK simply adds them to the roster of their victims.
  • The Man Behind the Monsters: The elusive "Chief Salamander", who leads the war on humanity and makes threatening world-scale radio broadcasts. He is secretly a human, a World War veteran named Andreas Schultze note .
  • Master Race: Poking fun at the Third Reich, Čapek has German government claim that German Newts are a superior Nordic race and deserve more "lebensraum" than the inferior Newts of other countries.
  • Punny Name: The story opens with introducing Captain J. Van Toch and the name of his ship and that he works for a company based in Amsterdam strongly imply he's Dutch. However, it's later revealed his name is actually Vantoch which is a very ordinary-sounding Czech surname. He comes from Moravia and speaks in irresistible local dialect.
  • Same Story, Different Names: The general plot of War with the Newts is very similar to that of R.U.R., which Čapek had published 15 years earlier. However, the book's message is quite different: whereas in R. U. R. , Čapek warns against humanity's over-enthusiasm with technical progress and exposes its de-humanising potential, The War with the Newts is an intentionally transparent alegory of the rising totalitarianism and people's willingness to fall blindly in line behind a "strong leader". Ironically, compared to the older play, most of the novel is, at least on the surface, written in a much more light-hearted, almost burlesque style, despite its arguably even darker topic.
  • Scrapbook Story: Čapek worked also as a journalist, and this novel shows. It is a collage of various story-telling methods and Čapek employed and spoofed techniques of popular journalism for expressing scientific, political, social or philosophical ideas related to the story. The story is presented from multiple perspectives, and there are many documents, scraps and clippings from in-verse scientists, journalists, politicians, businessmen, celebrities or working-class people.
  • Shout-Out: Captain J Van Toch/ Jan Vantoch is clearly inspired by Jan "Eskimo" Welzl, who was something of a celebrity in inter-war Czechoslovakia. A globe-trotting adventurer who had spent long time in various sub-Arctic locations mostly in Canada and Siberia as a trapper, prospector and self-proclaimed honorary chieftan of several indigenous tribes, Welzl was discovered by renowned Czech journalists Bedřich Golombek and Edvard Valenta (Čapek's colleagues in the daily Lidové Noviny), to whom he relayed his admittedly slightly tall tales in the same Moravian dialect Vantoch uses, richly interspersed with German and English words. The inspiration is lampshaded by Golombek and Valenta's being Van Toch's discoverers in the book, as they were Welzl's in reality. In fact the journalists even muse that Van Toch may become "a second Eskimo Welzl".
  • Slave Race: The Newts.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The inevitable Newt rebellion.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The debates surrounding treatment of the Newts.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: Bondy does eventually listen to van Toch about the Newts.

Alternative Title(s): War With The Salamanders