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Titan

Morgan Robertson (1898), as reported by David Mendelsohn (2012)

Perhaps the most unsettling item in the immense inventory of Titanic trivia is a novel called Futility, by an American writer named Morgan Robertson. It begins with a great ocean liner of innovative triple-screw design, "the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men... Unsinkable--indestructible." Speeding along in dangerous conditions, the ship first hits something on its starboard side ("A slight jar shook the forward end"); later on, there is a terrifying cry of "Ice ahead," and the vessel collides with an iceberg and goes down.

As the title suggests, the themes of this work of fiction are the old ones: the vanity of human striving, divine punishment for overweening confidence in our technological achievement, the futility of human effort in a world ruled by indifferent nature. But the writing comes to life only when Robertson focuses on the mechanical details, as in the scene of the aftermath of the collision:

Seventy-five thousand tons--dead-weight--rushing through the fog at the rate of fifty feet per second, had hurled itself at an iceberg... She rose out of the sea, higher and higher-until the propellers in the stern were half exposed... The holding-down bolts of twelve boilers and three triple-expansion engines, unintended to hold such weights from a perpendicular flooring, snapped, and down through a maze of ladders, gratings and fore-and-after bulkheads came these giant masses of steel and iron, puncturing the sides of the ship... the roar of escaping steam, and the bee-like buzzing of nearly three thousand human voices, raised in agonized screams and callings... A solid, pyramid-like hummock of ice, left to starboard.
Down to the most idiosyncratic detail, all this is familiar: the bee-like buzzing seems like a nod to [Titanic survivor] Jack Thayer's comparison of the sounds of the dying to locusts on a summer night. And yet it couldn't be. Robertson--who gave his fictional ship the name Titan--published his book in 1898, fourteen years before the real liner sailed. If the Titanic continues to haunt our imagination, it's because we were dreaming her long before the fresh spring afternoon when she turned her bows westward and, for the first time, headed toward the open sea.

Source: "Unsinkable" by David Mendelsohn; essay in the New Yorker, reprinted in Waiting for the Barbarians, © 2012, pp 99-100.



LISTS AND LINKS: books & writing - ships - natural disasters - oops! - wrecks - prediction - psychic dreams & visions - J.C. Middleton's lifesaving Titanic Nightmare - Graham Greene's apparently clairvoyant Titanic Image - Wayan's dream of Captain Ahab's Iceberg Wranglers

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