This book is awesome.
It is one of a few works by Karel Čapek that is in the public domain and has a translation (which you can read here) that is under a creative commons license. Karel Čapek was a Czech science fiction writer from the early 20th century. Today he’s most well known as the originator of the word “robot”—which he introduced in his 1920 play R.U.R. The Absolute at Large was his first novel, after he’d written some plays and short stories. It’s a novel that begins in a very familiar, classic sort of way—a businessman sees an advertisement for an invention, realizes the inventor is an old friend, and goes to pay him a visit. It turns out that this invention (called a “carburator”) is a furnace that consumes matter entirely. It destroys it on an atomic level, releasing massive amounts of energy, and leaving nothing behind—at least, nothing physical. This is where the story turns away from typical hard sci-fi, and goes ahead toward something fantastic.
The inventor, Rudolph Marek, says that he has been reading about pantheism—the idea that god is in everything. This theory explains why when people go near the carburator, they feel a sense of awe—of holiness—all around them. By destroying matter completely, the carburator not only releases energy, it releases God—or, the Absolute.
The book continues to follow Marek and G.H. Bondy, the businessman, as Bondy purchases the invention and gets his company to start mass-producing them. As carburators are installed throughout the world, more and more instances of miracles occur, and the people near the carburators grow more and more spiritually fanatic. Groups of worshippers and cult leaders spring up all around these carburators, and eventually the Earth throws itself into a world war much more fractured, vicious, and global than the first one.
The fact that the Absolute manifests itself in every aspect of society means that Čapek’s satire has free reign. The absurd fanaticism inspired by the Absolute is a way to look at actual fanaticisms with a critical eye—communism, capitalism, and nationalism being chief among them. The book is short, but it is epically satirical.
This book is awesome, and I am recording an audiobook of it. I’ll release episodes every Sunday and Tuesday, on youtube and on podomatic.
UPDATE: And on iTunes here.
I’ve already posted the first three chapters, and you can listen to those in the video below.
And while you’re waiting for more episodes, here’s a playlist of the music I plan on using, to get you in the mood. This is going to be fun.