The Triumph of Mechanics

Translated by Gio Clairval

Karl Hans Strobl (1877–1946) was an Austrian author and editor of fantasy and weird fiction. His writing was strongly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and Hanns Heinz Ewers, author of such weird horror classics as “The Spider.” After World War I, Strobl relocated to Germany, where he founded the magazine Der orchideengarten: Phantastische blätter (The Orchid Garden: Fantastic Pages) in 1919 with Alfons von Czibulka, which is now regarded as the world’s first specialized fantasy magazine, predating Weird Tales in the United States by two years.

Strobl carved out a space for himself as a unique writer of macabre fiction, earning comparisons to the Czech writer Gustav Meyrink and to Alfred Kubin. However, Strobl also became increasingly extremist as an advocate for German nationalism. This impulse led to Strobl’s adopting right-wing and anti-Semitic views late in the 1920s. Some of the racism inherent in Strobl’s worldview had been visible as early as the illustrations commissioned for Der orchideengarten but metastasized when Strobl joined the Nazi Party before World War II, spending the rest of his literary career producing pro-Nazi propaganda. As a result, his works were banned by the Allies at the end of the war.

“The Triumph of Mechanics” (1907) originally appeared in The Big Book of Science Fiction where it was translated for the first time into English. It is only one of many interesting stories Strobl wrote prior to the hardening of his radicalized rightwing views. What comes through behind the apparent faith and optimism about industry and industrialization is the threat inherent to a mechanized society: the rebellious artificial legions stealing the world from their masters, foreshadowing one of the themes of classic science fiction. This stance is in direct opposition to the “can-do, gee whiz” attitude about humanity’s endeavors on Earth and beyond the stars that dominated some early American science fiction.

***

The town’s toy industry had grown considerably in the last few years. All civilized countries placed orders upon orders, eager to own mechanical toys—multicolored, marvelously precise: the Punchinello puppets banging drums, the indefatigable fencers, the madly fast automobiles, the proud war vessels propelled by veritable steam engines. Through some forceful entreat, one could export the toys to unsophisticated lands—though the demand was not as imperious. One could often find— deep in the forests and out in the deserts of Africa—little indigenous children playing with what remained of those remarkable products. A famous explorer even confessed to having been fooled in the jungle, at the edge of the Malagarassi, by a very peculiar monkey: the beast sat in a palm tree, and the explorer had convinced himself he had discovered another simian species, when he glimpsed his country’s trade mark, D.R.P.[1] N. 105307, which destroyed his hopes. But the independent press soon placed this story in the usual category (as far as explorers of Africa were concerned) of imaginary ravings, and condemned it as one more conspiracy conceived by the abhorred colonial policy.

The automated rabbits from the firm Stricker & Vorderteil were by far in greatest demand. These small animals, exact replicas of the natural creatures, were capable, when their spring was fully wound up, to hop around like their living models, in five or six circles.

A mechanical engineer of universal genius, an American, of course, whose inventions seemed to fall from the heavens directly onto his lap, had designed the humble inanimate beasts specifically for the company. Unfortunately, the moment when the firm’s performance and celebrity peaked, everything collapsed like a house of cards. With the impertinence of the man who believes himself indispensible, Hopkins requested to be paid double, work half hours, and have access to a personal laboratory and a vacation property out of town. Stricker was inclined to accept, but Vorderteil opposed this decision in the strongest possible terms: “We can’t do that, if only for the sake of management’s principles; otherwise, in six months’ time Hopkins will come up with some new whim.”

Stricker agreed. The American, a grin hovering about his face, listened to his boss’s decision and responded by handing over his notice.  The slight consternation and discontent caused by this reaction vanished when the owners realized all the crucial secrets of fabrication were safe and the enterprise risked nothing.

“What if,” said the anxious Stricker, “Hopkins creates a competing firm?”

“Leave it to me,” said Vorderteil in a soothing tone, as he was, through a few discreet dealings, acquainted with the town’s mayor. The defector would receive no permission to start his business.

Meanwhile, Hopkins worked as if nothing had happened. He continued to supervise the factory’s production, changing a few small-scale details, as if he intended to work for Stricker and Vorderteil forever. One could say he invented as easily as he drew breath. During these last weeks, important orders of rabbits came in, and the firm was forced to increase its means of production, to fabricate those legions of small animals. Hopkins, wearing his customary smile, left at the end of his notice, doffed his impeccable top hat and bowed low to his former employers. He remained worryingly quiet about his future projects, and what Stricker’s fretful nature had correctly intuited turned out to be true. Through his discreet dealings with the Mayor’s office, Vorderteil learned that Hopkins had bought a vacant lot and had filed a building permit, to build a new factory.

“Guess,” Vorderteil cried, “what he’s going to fabricate?”

“I have no idea,” Stricker answered, and this time he really had no clue.

“Toys made of glazed colored glass. That’s what he wants to do. Glazed colored glass! Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Stricker had never heard of such a thing, but he deemed Hopkins capable of anything, even of making glazed colored glass toys, which is why he blanched, nodded, shrugged his shoulders, and hunched over, thus losing three centimeters in height.

Vorderteil yelled: “Glazed glass. And colored! Nonsense!”

“Calm down. It’s probably a mistake. Maybe Hopkins meant to say ‘gasified air.’ I think I heard something about it.”

At these words, Vorderteil banged his fist on the table, so forcefully the huge Shannon recorder placed over his head oscillated. He cried:

“This is a serious matter. Don’t be facetious, now that everything we worked for is crumbling around our ears. When Hopkins says glazed glass, he thinks glazed glass, and, if I understand well, he gave an overview of his project, from which it would appear that he has discovered a process to solidify air, a method that allows submitting air to very high temperatures, giving it all the properties of glass, except for fragility.”

“That would be an industrial revolution, and he is very obliging, given that he intends to use this breakthrough technology to make toys. Who knows where he’ll stop?”

“Very obliging, yes. But what if, all of a sudden, children were given dice, skittles, puppets, locomotives made of colored glass that never break, and the toys are completely safe? Maybe he will even make automated rabbits, oh!”

Vorderteil threw himself back so violently in his armchair that the huge Shannon recorder fell on his head. While papers flittered around him, he bounded to his feet.

That must be avoided at all costs, and if you, Mister Stricker, indulge in incomprehensible nonchalance, I myself must thank God for having connections that will help me foil Hopkins’s nefarious plan.”

The following weeks, many discussions took place through the usual discreet channels, between the Mayor and Vorderteil. It ensued that these secret dealings caused a firm refusal of all the requests, appeals and revisions filed by Hopkins. To the point that Stricker, crushed by his associate’s repeated victories, saw himself shrink about two centimeters in height every day.

After the seventeenth rejection of Hopkins’s request, a peculiar din resounded before the City Hall’s door, and the American, flanked by two enormous mastiffs, entered the anti-chamber, which was made narrow by thick folders, all sorts of carefully kept clutter, and rolled-up sheets of paper containing building plans.

Secretaries and clerks took refuge in the adjacent rooms, while the doors moaned under the weight of the mastiffs that were leaning into the panels. Thanks to the two monsters, whose heads reached up to his shoulders, Hopkins was able to get into the Mayor’s office. Here he stood, Hopkins, facing the Mayor, hat in hand, while the mastiffs, giving in to their instinct, sniffed the cabinets all around the room, upending vases and unabashedly leaving the marks of their huge paws on the delicate patterns of the rug, and the Mayor tried to find something to say:

“Don’t you know that dogs are not allowed inside?” he ended up yelling.

“Of course I know,” Hopkins answered, smiling. “Dogs must stay outside.”

“So how dare you introduce your tykes here!”

“These? But they’re not dogs.”

“Oh, yes? What are they then?”

“They’re machines, Mr. Mayor.”

And Hopkins called one of the mastiffs closer, and unscrewed its head so that it was possible to glimpse the gearwheels inside; he also explained how the animals moved their limbs, and sniffed, particularly insisting on the clever mechanism that allowed the dogs to wag their tails.

“What in the Hell is this for—?” asked the Mayor, an almost imploring expression on his nonplussed face, while the cogs, wheels, springs, and electrical batteries spun frenetically.

Hopkins switched his dogs’ mechanisms off and riposted through another question:

“Why wouldn’t you let me build my factory?”

“For that, you should address the Civil Engineering Office, in order to learn whether it is possible to obtain a building permit.”

“I have already put the same question to the Civil Engineering Office. There, I was told to address the Police Office.”

“Well, then, and—?”

“From there, I was sent to the Technical Assistance Office.”

“Well, then, and—?”

“There, they wanted me to go to the Civil Engineering Office again, but at this point I decided to address you directly.”

The Mayor, seeing himself abandoned by all his auxiliary offices, resigned himself to replying.

“We didn’t respond favorably to your request because the legal requirements were not met.”

“But everything’s perfect, and if you don’t believe me, I shall do whatever it takes to obtain your agreement, one way or another.”

Under the dogs’ lackluster stare, which seemed as threatening as the glint in their master’s eyes, the Mayor dared not to contradict his interlocutor. The three creatures that fenced the Mayor inside a magical circle resembled receptacles of accumulated force waiting for a switch-on to explode into action, unleashing destruction.

In a wavering voice, he asked: “And now, what do you intend to do?”

“Oh, I can choose one among hundreds of possibilities . . . like . . . rabbits, for example.”

“Ra—rabbits?”

“Yes . . . I can set a billion mechanical rabbits on the town.”

There, the Mayor burst into laughter. “A billion! And . . . mechanical . . . ah ah.”

“I’m under the impression you have no idea what a billion is, and you don’t know a thing about the perfection of mechanics, not to mention the effects of inanimate objects to which one lends movement . . .”

But the Mayor, who couldn’t control his fits of laughter, kept saying, “Ra—rabbits. Au-tomated . . . ra—rabbits. Ha ha.”

“Then you take responsibility for it?”

“But of course . . . of course.”

“All right,” said Hopkins, and he tipped his hat by way of a farewell.

He turned on his dogs’ switches, and followed by the monsters, exited, an amiable smile at the corner of his mouth. It took the Mayor two hours to recover, and only after all the heads of departments succeeded in restraining their serious cases of the giggles, he went home, a vague air of satisfaction about him. Exhausted by his unusual exertions, he couldn’t wait to tell his wife about the joke. In front of the door, he saw in a corner, shyly nestled against the wall, looking miserable, a cute little white rabbit produced according to the renowned process of the Stricker & Vorderteil firm. Amused by the thought that Hopkins had already placed a little white rabbit by his door, the Mayor extended a hand to seize the small beast, but the rabbit hopped away, quickly escaping him. Still intent on the idea of pursuit, the Mayor saw with satisfaction that not far down the street, a few rascals had trapped the animal. The story told by the Mayor was sheer pleasure to his wife as her thrifty nature immediately envisaged the opportunity of procuring children’s toys at no cost. When little Edwige appeared clutching a little white rabbit she had found on the porch, the Mayor’s wife laughed joyously. She burst out laughing again when Richard brought in a rabbit, which settled in on the kitchen table, and again when Fritz and Anna emerged from the dark depths of the cave, each carrying a rabbit.

These animals with dull glass eyes hopped to-and-fro in a frenzy: one had to stack them up into a corner, from which they escaped, causing the children to become noisily nervous. But when Cook, pale in the face, reported that one of the creatures had all of a sudden leaped into a marmalade jar, the mother’s hilarity gave place to the housewife’s carefulness. During the afternoon, the rabbits multiplied in a worrisome manner. They seemed to lurk in every corner, erupt from the cracks in the floorboards; they sat on all the moldings and doorframes; sprang blindly everywhere, so that the general amusement quickly ceased, while a murmur of disapprobation filled the house.

The Mayor, fleeing from the nuisance, went to his club through a twilight peppered with hopping white smudges. There he met friends who, as perplexed as he, had convened to discuss the phenomenon, while rabbits, in ever increasing numbers, came to disrupt the men’s reflections. From time to time, Joseph, the club’s barman, swept the animals out of the rooms, but the next minute, the things shot up from every corner, leaping at one another, their glass eyes red and bulging. Upon the reading table, the creatures devilled the sacred placement of the newspapers. The gentlemen traded furious glances, deeply disturbed by this aggravating intrusion, and left as soon as it appeared that Joseph and his broom were unable to get rid of the vermin.

That same evening, the Mayor felt a hard lump under his bedclothes, and, when he anxiously groped for it, his hand came up filled with a rabbit that stared at him stupidly. Cursing, he threw the thing, but the animal contented itself with uttering a weak high-pitched scream, like a struck instrument, and then resumed hopping. At this proof of resilience, the Mayor flipped his lid, and the effects of his anger troubled his sleep as his dreams teemed with rabbits. Written in letters that reached the sky, the terrible word “UNDESTRUCTIBLE” loomed in the midst of a crowd of rabbits, which went up and down the sign, as agile as the proverbial enchanted cats. The red eyes converged on the same point, the Mayor, who lay paralyzed in bed.

When he decided to wash away the sweat caused by the nightmare, the man found the top of his washing stand invaded by rabbits, and one of them, with its fur thin and dull, twitched pitifully at the bottom of his pitcher. With a satisfying malignant pleasure, he hurled the creature to the floor, but the rabbit slowly straightened and resumed hopping with the usual enthusiasm.

In the streets, the passersby could not take a step without stumbling upon one of the little monsters, which survived the most incredible torments applied by urchins, and even the passage of the heaviest trucks.  Rabbits on the steps of the City Hall. Rabbits in every corridor. Perching on the highest folders, they glanced down at the poor Major, who passed among his employees fighting against more rabbits, to enter his office. Thirteen rabbits welcomed him from his desk, causing the papers to rustle and scattering them in splendid disarray. The Mayor let himself fall into his armchair, invoking all the destroying powers. He cried out in anguish when his hands landed on soft fur. It seemed to him that over the vacuous muzzles hovered an expression resembling a smile. Thanks to the multiplication, the smile seemed to amplify, growing stronger, and finally the Mayor had the impression of seeing Hopkins’s grin repeated a hundred thousand times.

Mustering all his energy, the Mayor called Vorderteil. Aghast, they gazed at each other for some time, until the Mayor recovered a shade of dignity.

“This Mr. Hopkins . . .” he began.

“Yes, this Mr. Hopkins,” Vorderteil said.

“A billion automated rabbits . . .”

“Indestructible . . . Indestructible,” Vorderteil confirmed.

“It’s horrible . . . A billion automated ra—” The Mayor had to brush away a rabbit that had brusquely leaped onto his shoulder and wanted to climb his head. “Damned mechanics!” he cried, on the brink of tears.

“Yes, yes, but I don’t understand . . .”

“What is it that you don’t understand?”

“My factory has never produced so many rabbits before.”

“Where do they come from then?”

Vorderteil was unable to answer as he found himself inundated by the red ink a rabbit had just spilled. His elegant black trousers were ruined. The Mayor laughed convulsively.

Then Vorderteil said, “I think Hopkins has hoarded all the latest orders. That man is the Devil incarnate . . . and he’s out to get us . . . but . . .”

And, ignoring the red tide that continued to spill out between them, he whispered: “But I’m thinking of something even more terrible . . .”

“What?”

“Have you noticed that two generations of rabbits have presented themselves?”

Yes. It was true. Among the twenty-three rabbits that frolicked on the Mayor’s desk, a few seemed to be smaller, more delicate . . . younger than the others. Even though all of them hopped about, eyeing the world with the same fixed, stupid gaze, smiling the same hideous smile.

“You see, when Hopkins was still working for us, he alluded to some revolutionary process, something . . . a kind of natural reproduction of mechanical rabbits, which he called ‘asexual reproduction.’ We made fun of him at the time, but now, apparently, he is using this process. It’s clear now: he’s using it to terrorize us. Yes. These rabbits are admirable replica of life. They’re reproducing, and tonight we’ll see the third generation. Tomorrow morning, we’ll welcome the fifth, and the day after tomorrow, we will sail toward the two billion beasts . . .”

This conversation met a quick and strange conclusion, which also ended the discreet dealings between the two men. Seized by the irrepressible desire to avoid going insane, and maybe a combination of rage and desperation, the Mayor grabbed by the neck the author of this disaster, spun him around and had him thrown out. Unfortunately, this violent act brought no resolution to the problem of the rampant rabbits. When they had appeared, the town was amused, and then enraged, but now the general sentiment was horror, and disgust. White beasties hopped among the dishes on the tables. They could only be destroyed with axes and fire. With the magistrate’s authorization, bonfires were lit on the streets, and rabbits were brought in buckets, aprons, and hutches. But despite these measures, the number of rabbits increased by the hour until the town’s population gave up. The fires consumed, a reek of burned fur stank up the air. Without anything to keep them at bay, the rabbits destroyed every trade, jammed the traffic, invaded all activities, and even insinuated themselves into the secret of amorous passions.

But it happened that in a region nearby, in Switzerland, a woman gave birth to a stillborn child. The terror experienced by the mother had caused this premature birth, and the child had on its face a mark in the shape of a rabbit. Indignation erupted, and the City Hall was almost assailed by a rioting, armed crowd. In this crucial moment, the Mayor remembered Napoleon III, who succeeded in calming the miserable masses with raucous parties. Fighting an internal disquiet with external actions seemed the right solution, even more so since he had glimpsed the fifth generation of monsters in his own house. So he ordered festivities of the greatest splendor commemorating the poet Schiller. Like a captain casting a last glance from the mast of his floundering ship, the Mayor contemplated his town from the highest spot of the City Hall. Even though the month was September, the rooftops, the streets and parks seemed to disappear under layers of snow, but this peculiar blanket twitched, decomposed and recomposed. It was only the billion rabbits—as promised. Like an old man, the Mayor stepped down from the tower, slipping over the soft backs of a few thousand rabbits, and, as soon as he reached the ground floor, he heard the report of a policeman he’d sent to Hopkins’s home. The man was nowhere to be found, which did not surprise the Mayor in the slightest.

That evening, the townspeople gathered for the commemoration, after braving the mountains of rabbits filling the streets, particularly the crossroads, where the beasties superposed in double and triple layers. Even inside, it was difficult to move about as the rabbits leaped among the revelers’ legs, occupied the chairs and filed up and down the galleries, like a bas-relief conceived by a mad sculptor.

An eminent professor who had considerably contributed to the town’s intellectual life delivered a speech, and when he extracted a rabbit from his suit pocket to toss it away, the gesture seemed to punctuate his words in a customary manner.  A more lugubrious impression occurred when the trumpets released a discordant tune, caused by the rabbits obstructing the instruments. Only the young dramatic singer Beate Vogl created a harmonious atmosphere when she sang a lied in Schiller’s honor. Until a terrible scream broke the crystalline sounds as the singer extracted a rabbit from her cleavage. A rabbit, yes, with nine more newborn rabbits hanging from it. The turmoil had reached a peak when a powerful voice rose above the din.

Hopkins stood on stage, beside the unconscious singer. He waved his impeccable top hat and bowed to the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I beg you to please pay attention to what I have to say.  The painful events visited on you these last days could have been avoided if the authorities had been able to grasp the meaning of the word ‘billion,’ also showing greater consideration for the accomplishments of modern technology. I desire nothing more than putting an end to these disagreements. The rabbits will disappear as soon as my request is accepted.  Although, if my projects should meet more obstacles, then, and only then, would I, against my desire, rest assured, make your situation a little worse.”

Smiling, Hopkins, fished a squirming rabbit out of his pocket, and held it up by the ears. “So far, you’ve seen an innocuous species of rabbit, but, tomorrow at midday, you’ll encounter a new variety: the rabbit that can eat.”

With these words, he presented the animal with a bunch of clover.

The silent crowd watched in consternation as the animal’s muzzle twitched and turned toward the vegetable to swallow it with mechanical delight.

Everyone pictured an army of indestructible, voracious rabbits devouring everything in sight. Dread crushed the assembly. Nobody dared utter a sound.

That night, an extraordinary meeting of the City Council was called, and, come morning, an employee was dispatched to the American’s house with an invitation to the Mayor’s office. This time, Hopkins was at home.

The inventor, upon hearing the decision that gave him permission to build his factory, listened gravely to the question he surely expected.

The Mayor, tired and pensive, his face expressing a deep doubt, said:

“Tell me now.” His hand caressed his forehead as if wanting to dispel an oppressive impression. “I get most of your science. There’s something, though, I don’t understand. It’s the fact that, thanks to your savoir-faire in mechanics, by mastering the process of life, you have created rabbits that can eat. How is it possible? The rabbit you showed us . . .”

Hopkins gave a smile that was more bitter than usual, and tipped his impeccable top hat. “Well, that one . . . ,” he said. “That rabbit, Mayor, the one I showed you, was, quite exceptionally, a real, living rabbit.”

_____

[1] Translator’s note: Deutsche Reichspatent

Gio Clairval is an Italian-born writer, translator and former international management consultant who has lived most of her life in Paris, France, now commuting between Lake Como, Italy, and Edinburgh, Scotland. She has translated literary classics from the French, German, Spanish and Italian languages: Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Georg Heym, Karl Ströbl, Julio Cortàzar, Dino Buzzati, Michel Bernanos, Jean-Claude Seignolle. She is currently translating contemporary French novels. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Weird Tales and the Postscripts anthologies among others. She blogs intermittently at KOSMOCHLOR and regularly haunts Twitter, where she is known as @gioclair.

2 replies to “The Triumph of Mechanics

  1. Gustav Meyrink was not a Czech writer. Although he lived much of his life in Prague and set some of his works there, he was born in Vienna, wrote in German and for most of his life was a citizen of the Empire of Austria-Hungary.

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