Thursday, 19 April 2012

Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan (1898)

She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization. On her bridge were officers, who, besides being the pick of the Royal Navy, had passed rigid examinations in all studies that pertained to the winds, tides, currents, and geography of the sea; they were not only seamen, but scientists. The same professional standard applied to the personnel of the engine-room, and the steward's department was equal to that of a first-class hotel.

Two brass bands, two orchestras, and a theatrical company entertained the passengers during waking hours; a corps of physicians attended to the temporal, and a corps of chaplains to the spiritual, welfare of all on board, while a well-drilled fire-company soothed the fears of nervous ones and added to the general entertainment by daily practice with their apparatus.

From her lofty bridge ran hidden telegraph lines to the bow, stern engine-room, crow's-nest on the foremast, and to all parts of the ship where work was done, each wire terminating in a marked dial with a movable indicator, containing in its scope every order and answer required in handling the massive hulk, either at the dock or at sea ---which eliminated, to a great extent, the hoarse, nerve-racking shouts of officers and sailors.

From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and so no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.

Thus begins Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, an 1898 novella by Morgan Robertson that is notorious for its eerily specific prediction of the destruction of the largest and most advanced ocean liner of its day.

The similarities are disturbing, to be sure. That the Titan and the Titanic share nearly the same name and same fate would be enough to warrant a shudder. Both sank in April when transferring passengers between New York and England on the dangerous North Atlantic routes, when icebergs are at their peak. The echoes sound louder still: the 800' long Titan was only 82' shorter than the Titanic, the Titan carried only 300 more passengers than the 2500 of the Titanic, both carried only an insufficient fraction of the lifeboats necessary (16 on Titanic, 24 on Titan), both were considered unsinkable with the same battery of sealed compartments, and both were travelling dangerously fast, with the Titan going four knots faster than Titanic's 21.

These similarities are not absolute, however. For example, the Titan was not on her maiden voyage. On the contrary, she was heading back to England after receiving passengers in New York. Her use of top speed was not an informal error born of pride but the advertised policy of the company: to make the steamship as reliable as the railway, she would go at full speed at all times. The evening before the collision with the iceberg she sheared a smaller ship right in half on account of said policy. Finally the strike against the berg was far more dramatic. Rather than a gentle tear against the side that caused the ship to slowly sink some hours later, the Titan threw itself upon the ice, tearing out its innards and landing on its side before slipping back into the water. Only two lifeboats could be launched, occupied by 11 people, including the captain and the first mate and only one woman. The protagonist of the story and the woman's young daughter had to make a go of survival on the iceberg itself, when they landed upon it.

John Rowland is our protagonist, a drunken and disgraced seaman trained at Annapolis but working as a deckhand. His ruin was a failed relationship with a good Christian girl who could not abide his atheism. Embittered, he took to the drink. Unfortunately for him, this same woman is travelling on the Titan with her daughter and husband. Already Myra believed him to be a stalker when she found him playing with her daughter on deck, unbeknownst to John. This chance meeting dredged up wretched memories for John, as well as giving ammunition to the captain and first mate. John was the lookout on the night that the smaller ship was destroyed by the Titan and he made the mistake of not allowing his silence to be bought off.

Fixing to frame-up John, the bridge crew sneaks him some hashish. If he appears to all witnesses to be going through delirium tremens during the trip, then no one on land will be convinced that the Titan actually did hit anybody. He is also thrown onto an early watch, out of turn, so that the bridge can keep an eye on his descent into madness. That is, however, when a supermassive iceberg decides to throw itself into the Titan's path. The sinking only occupies a scant few pages of the text, but offers some of the most striking of Robertson's otherwise drear prose. A distraught John paces about deck, meditating on the misfortunes of love and affirming his faithlessness to the cosmos as he falls more and more deeply into hallucinations. Reality and drugged illusions fold unintelligibly about each other up to when somehow Myra's daughter ends up with John again and the Titan runs aground. Our enfeebled deckhand and the girl, also named Myra, land on the iceberg where he must protect her from the cold and polar bears while pondering philosophically on their situation. Meanwhile, the company and the insurers are in a fit as they attempt any and all machinations to deny any liability.

For as weird as the coincidences are, The Wreck of the Titan is more a critique of business practices and the class system. The injuries suffered by John at the hands of others are inextricably tied to his status relative to Myra and the Titan's officers, despite his becoming a celebrity and a paparazzi-magnet in the wake of his return to civilization. Robertson chooses not to dwell on it to any great length, but cannot avoid making certain observations about the nobility and goodwill of John versus the upstanding and Christian people who throw themselves against him. Most disturbing of all, yet the most familiar, is the refusal of culpability by any of the financially vested parties.

Taking the differences into account, how was Robertson so prescient? Even if not all the details are in place, he still predicted the collision of an ultramodern ocean liner with an iceberg, the corporate malfeasance that allowed it to happen, and the human drama that ensued. Most probably, the author attempted to make his statement using the most fantastically horrifying sort of event he could imagine, the sort of symbolic disaster that could perfectly encapsulate the agenda of monied interests. It was such a fantastic idea that the novel itself went unpublished until 1912, because up to that point no one thought such an event was plausible. It just happened that those very social ills that Roland critiqued manifested themselves in almost exactly the way he had predicted.

1 comment:

Willow of the Trees said...

This has always creeped me out!