Because “The Triumph of Mechanics” by Karl Hans Strobl is included in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we have to assume Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had a good reason other than it just being a fun story. It is the first English appearance of this 1907 Austrian story translated by Gio Clairval, so they must have had it translated for a special reason. Wouldn’t they? However, I am at a loss to see its historical significance to science fiction. Although, in retrospect, we’d call it science fiction today for several reasons. “Sultana’s Dream” also came out in 1907. England, India, and Austria. It’s still a long way to April, 1926 America.
My reaction to an American inventor, Hopkins, coercing a town to give him a building permit by producing a billion mechanical rabbits was to instantly recall Flat Cats, those quickly reproducing Martian animals in Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones. The idea of overproducing pets was also used in the classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” When I saw tribbles in 1967 I instantly thought flat cats too. However, Heinlein admits getting the idea from the 1905 story “Pigs is Pigs” by Ellis Parker Butler, about Guinea pigs that reproduce at an exponential rate at a train station. Full text of the story is here. There have been several animated films based on that story, starting in the silent era, but here’s Walt Disney’s version from 1954. Any chance that Strobl reading “Pigs is Pigs” before writing his story? And could Ellis Parker Butler have snagged the idea from an earlier tale, maybe an old German fairytale?
The main reason “The Triumph of Mechanics” is science fiction is the little toy robotic rabbits can reproduce – self replicating machines. But I have a question. Why would Hopkins need a factory to manufacture toy rabbits when he can quickly produce a billion of them without a factory?
I wish I knew more about the original publication of “The Triumph of Mechanics.” Did it first appear in a magazine or newspaper? Did it have illustrations? 1907 was years before the word robot came into vogue. However, mechanical or clockwork creatures have been around in fiction for a long time. The story also mentions some other far out ideas for creating wonderful toys, including making a glass like material out of solidifying air. They marveled at how such an artificial substance could take over the toy industry. I thought of plastics. I imagined whispering into Benjamin Braddock’s ear, “Two words – solidified air!”
I wonder if there was any significance that the go-getting inventor was American? Had Europeans stereotyped us as marvelous inventors because of Thomas Edison? The overall tone of this story was amusing, just a tall tale, like something Mark Twain would have written. Since it was also written well before the term science fiction existed, I wondered if its readers thought it was some special kind of fiction, something out of the ordinary? As we read each story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we need to remember we won’t reach stories published in a genre magazine until the 9th story, and even then, the term science fiction wasn’t coined right away by Hugo Gernsback. He tried to pass off scientifiction on us. The tag science fiction began to emerge in the 1930s but didn’t catch on with the public at large until the 1950s.
James Wallace Harris, 8/24/21