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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Absolute at Large

Karel Čapek

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To purchase The Absolute at Large

Title: The Absolute at Large
Author: Karel Čapek
Genre: Novel
Written: 1922 (Eng. 1927)
Length: 249 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Absolute at Large - US
The Absolute at Large - UK
The Absolute at Large - Canada
The Absolute at Large - India
La fabrique d'absolu - France
Das Absolutum - Deutschland
  • Czech title: Továrna na absolutno
  • Translated by Thomas Mark
  • With an Introduction by Stephen Baxter

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Our Assessment:

B : rough, but some clever, decent fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2006 Pedro Ponce
Le Temps . 29/4/2015 Isabelle Rüf
TLS . 26/5/1927 Paul Selver

  From the Reviews:
  • "Capek's skewering of human greed and faith is all the more impressive given that the novel was originally published in 1922." - Pedro Ponce, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Cette fable est d’une drôlerie acerbe, que soulignent les gravures de Josef Capek, frère de l’auteur. Elle est aussi d’une lucidité tragique. (...) La Fabrique d’absolu est un chef-d’œuvre d’une actualité inquiétante." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "Capek's literary adroitness and his ability to produce sparkling improvisations on a given subject save the book. Together with several passages that are rather unconvincing, it contains much skilfully devised satire, notably on politics and clericalism. (...) The translation, which for unexplained reasons is unsigned, admirably reproduces the brisk and racy manner of the original." - Paul Selver, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Karel Čapek's 1922 novel, The Absolute at Large, begins in 1943, and like his most famous work, the play R.U.R. (best-known for introducing the word 'robot'), imagines the unintended consequences of breakthrough technological progress in a world ill-equipped to deal with it. Industrialist G.H.Bondy, "head of the great Metallo-Electric Company", has concerns about his business. Not that things aren't going rather well: "True, the M.E.C. had ten factories and 34,000 employees. The M.E.C. was the leading producer of iron", etc. But, a capitalist leader of industry, he has grander visions and aspirations.
       An advertisement in the newspaper catches Bondy's eye -- and he recognizes the name of the engineer who placed the ad, Rudy Marek, whom he knew at the Technical School. Marek had: "a touch of genius [....] He had ideas" -- but he was also impractical, "An absolute fool". But Bondy has to check out what Marek is trying to unload.
       Marek's discovery is spectacular. He calls it a 'Karburator' and it is an "atomic boiler", a small engine that, with a minimal amount of fuel -- and practically anything will do for fuel -- can provide a nearly endless supply of energy. (A sort of fusion reactor, in other words.) It can replace all other sources of power -- and provide it far more cheaply.
       As Bondy recognizes:

Down there in the cellar you have something uncanny, something that will overturn the world.
       Indeed. But, of course, there's a catch. There is a byproduct -- not nuclear waste, but something Marek calls 'the Absolute':
You're left with chemically unanalysable, immaterial residue, which shows no spectrum lines, neither atomic weight nor chemical affinity, no obedience to Boyle's law, none, none whatever, of the properties of matter. What is left behind is pure God.
       Not surprisingly, this proves to be something mankind is not equipped to deal with. As Marek warns Bondy: "We aren't used to reckoning with God as a reality". But cheap, endless power is hard to resist.
       Even aside from this divine side-effect, there are unintended consequences. So, while applying the Absolute to capitalism -- powering up the means of production (and lowering the costs of doing so) -- sounds like a smart business move, the Absolute has ideas of its own, turning capitalism on its head:
     The Absolute wants work. It clings furiously to life. Once it created the earth ! now it has flung itself into manufacture.
       Indifferent to any supposed laws of supply and demand, the Absolute simply churns out as much of everything as it can. That even goes for printing currency, which, like everything else, becomes worthless in its super-abundance. Trade collapses, capitalism implodes. But that isn't even Čapek's main focus: the religious fanaticism of those who have found god -- and everyone who gets near a Karburator is quickly overwhelmed by god -- is.
       In this world, god-as-Absolute proves to be too much of a good thing -- or too much of something, anyway -- to satisfy everyone. As Bondy notes:
"He is infinite. There's just where the trouble lies. You see, everyone measures off a certain amount of Him and then thinks it is the entire God. Each one appropriates a little fringe or fragment of Him and then thinks he possesses the whole of Him. See ?"
     "Aha," said the Captain. "And then gets angry with everyone else who has a different bit of Him."
     "Exactly. In order to convince himself that God is wholly his, he has to go and kill all the otehrs. Just for that very reason, because it means so much to him to have the whole of God and the whole of the truth. That's why he can't bear anyone else to have any other God or other truth."
       Fundamentalists of all stripes militantly defend their take on the Absolute, right down to to local Czech football-club supporters: AC Sparta's "proclaimed that the only God is the Greek Zeus, whereas the Slavia votes for Svantovit, the old sun-god". Every group takes up arms against the next, and between 1944 and 1953 what is truly "the Greatest War" breaks out -- "198,000,000 men took part in the fighting and all but thirteen of them fell".
       Bondy sees some of the danger from early on, and tries to keep at least some things in check (for example, in not selling Karburator's locally), and there are attempts to stay beyond their reach, but it takes catastrophe to set the world back in some sort of order.
       Čapek's satire -- originally apparently written for serial publication -- is rather uneven and rough, but he does have good fun with his nice, big ideas, and does offer some clever criticism of religious (and other) fanaticism. The humor is a bit broad and obvious, too -- but also quite funny.
       This is still very much old-style science fiction, but the mix of ambitious -- Čapek is tackling big issues -- and the humorous small details that reinforce his points make for a fairly entertaining work.
       [Note: the University of Nebraska Press edition is basically an offset-print of an older (but not the original) edition; one can understand their doing this ... economically, but apparently it also prevented them from proof-reading (and/or correcting) the text. There are a few typographical glitches; okay, that happens -- but misspelling the main character's name in the first line (it's given as "C.H.Bondy" but should be "G.H.Bondy") is just a shocking display of indifference.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2016

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The Absolute at Large: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Karel Čapek lived 1890 to 1938.

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