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Literature / Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan

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An 1898 novella by Morgan Robertson, about a disaster at sea. It mostly takes place on board the fictional ocean liner the Titan, the largest ship afloat. The novel follows John Rowland, a disgraced former US naval officer who's now a deckhand on the Titan. One April night while the Titan is going from Europe to New York on its third voyage, the ship hits an iceberg 400 nautical miles away from the coast of Newfoundland. The Titan sinks. Among the survivors are John Rowland and the daughter of one of his former lovers, whom he saved by jumping onto the iceberg.


John and his rescuee are recovered by a passing ship, and the girl is reunited with her mother. Who promptly arrests John for kidnapping her daughter. Luckily for him, the magistrate is sympathetic to him and tells off the mother for her ungratefulness to her daughter's savior. John, meanwhile, works his way up to a lucrative government position.

The novel gained more attention 14 years later, after the largest ship in the world, White Star Line's RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage from England to New York, hit an iceberg 400 nautical miles away from the coast of Newfounland and sank.

The author denied any prescience, instead attributing the similarities to his knowledge of maritime affairs and how a big disaster at sea would likely play out.



  • Abandon Ship: Averted; the Titan sinks so quickly that no order is given and only those who were on deck when the ship collided are able to escape.
  • Accidental Murder: The recklessness of the Titans officers to travel at full speed in a dense fog causes two fatal collisions in two days: first, the Titan rams the Royal Age and slices it in half, leaving everyone onboard to drown or die of exposure, and then the Titan itself slams directly into an iceberg, killing all but 13 of the 3,000 people onboard.
  • The Alcoholic: John Rowland in the beginning. He gets better.
  • An Arm and a Leg: John's confrontation with a polar bear requires his left arm to be amputated after he is rescued from the iceberg.
  • Arrested for Heroism: John manages to save a girl's life when the Titan sinks, and the girl's mother's response is to have him arrested for kidnapping the girl. Luckily, he's let off.
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  • Bears Are Bad News: A polar bear attacks John and the girl while they are stranded on the iceberg.
  • Blatant Lies: One of the officers tries to console Myra by telling her that her daughter is safe with John (which is true), knowing full well that John and the girl are stuck on the iceberg and have little chance of rescue.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In the first chapter, it is stated that if the Titan were to collide with another ship head-on at full speed, the other ship would be cut in half. Two chapters later, it does exactly that to the Royal Age.
  • Contrived Coincidence: John's former lover Myra is travelling on the same steamship where he is working as a deckhand on the same voyage that it collides with an iceberg.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The collision with the iceberg causes the boilers to burst, filling the engine room with steam and scalding all of the men inside it before they ever have a chance to drown.
  • Cruel Mercy: After hearing Rowland's testimony, Meyer lets the captain and first officer of the Titan leave his office and advises them to get out of the country before he reports them to the authorities, knowing that their careers are effectively ruined even if they aren't convicted.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It takes a while and a lot of work, but John escapes the Titan, finds a well-paying job, and kicks his alcohol habit.
  • Either/Or Title: Futility; or, The Wreck of the Titan. The latter title was added to capitalize on the similarities between the Titan and the sinking of the Titanic.
  • Eye Scream: John kills a polar bear by stabbing through its eye with his knife.
  • Funetik Aksent: Meyer has the habit of pronouncing the letter "b" as "p" and vice versa, as well as pronouncing "th" as "d".
    • "I am der heaviest insurer; so Mr. Selfridge, this battle will be largely petween you and myself."
  • Going Down with the Ship: Averted; out of about 3,000 people onboard, the captain is one of only 13 people who doesn't go down with the ship. In fact, only two of the survivors are passengers.
  • He Knows Too Much: After John refuses the captain's bribe to remain silent about the accident with the Royal Age, the captain and officers conspire to discredit John (already a known alcoholic) by drugging him and keeping a record of his ramblings as evidence of his unreliability.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: Mr. Selfridge has a sudden heart attack and dies in Meyer's office when John reveals that the Titan caused the sinking of the Royal Age (thus voiding its insurance policy and leaving Selfridge, the largest shareholder of the Titan, financially responsible).
  • Lethally Stupid: The officers of the Titan continue to travel at full speed at night in a dense fog, causing them to collide with the smaller Royal Age and sink it. Having learned nothing, they do the exact same thing the following night and collide with an iceberg, causing the Titan to sink with nearly 3,000 casualties.
  • Murder by Inaction: After cutting through the Royal Age, the Titan continues on its voyage, leaving the smaller ship to its fate and attempting to sweep the whole incident under the rug.
  • Mushroom Samba: To further discredit John, the captain has the boatswain spike his evening tea with hashish, causing him to hallucinate on watch so the crew can use his erratic behavior as evidence against his testimony.
  • Oh, Crap!: The captain and first officer of the Titan have this reaction during the inquiry when they try to discredit John by claiming he was drunk on watch (in reality, they had drugged him), only to realize they had just admitted to knowingly having an intoxicated man standing watch as lookout at the time of the collision.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted; both John's ex-lover and her daughter are named Myra.
  • Properly Paranoid: The morning after refusing the captain's bribe, John finds a flask of whiskey planted in the pocket of his jacket and assumes the captain is trying to drug him. While the whiskey itself is not drugged, the captain does have the boatswain spike John's tea later that day.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The magistrate.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The magistrate tells the mother off for arresting John.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: After the Titan collides with the Royal Age, causing the latter ship to sink, John is the only witness to the accident that refuses the captain's bribe to remain silent.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: After Mr. Selfridge's sudden death, John learns that he was the largest shareholder of the Titan. He then immediately refuses to testify about the collision with the Royal Age and the iceberg, as his testimony would void the Titan's insurance policy and leave Selfridge's family, namely John's former lover Myra and her daughter, financially responsible.
  • Serendipitous Survival: Both Myra and her daughter survive the sinking of the Titan because they were the only passengers not below decks when the ship collided with the iceberg (the girl had been woken up by the boatswain's whistle and wandered on deck, and her mother had come up looking for her).
  • Tempting Fate: The company that owns the Titan is so convinced of its unsinkability that they outfit her with the fewest number of lifeboats the law will allow them to, and make it company policy for the ship to travel at full speed at all times, regardless of the weather.
  • Thinking Out Loud: John starts rambling out loud about his failed relationship to Myra when the drugs start to affect him.
  • Ungrateful Bitch: The mother spares absolutely no gratitude to John for saving her daughter from the sinking Titan, instead prosecuting him for kidnapping her.

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