Author's fictional Titan hit iceberg years before the Titanic sank

Associated Press

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Copies of original newspapers describing the sinking of the Titanic rest in an exhibit at the South Street Seaport …

TORONTO - It was the largest ship of its day, described by its creator as "the greatest of the works of men."

Its seafaring days came to an abrupt and tragic end when it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, destroying the vessel and killing most of the passengers on board. And it's a fictional boat brought to life 14 years before the Titanic ever set sail.

The ship plays a relatively minor role in "Futility," the 1898 novella penned by U.S. writer Morgan Robertson, but it has assumed nearly mythological status among scholars of the real-life disaster of 1912. It seems fitting for a boat christened the Titan.

Robertson's story is rife with details that seem positively surreal for readers of the post-Titanic era, with the nearly identical names being among the least striking.

The ships are approximately the same size, with the Titanic being only 25 metres longer than the Titan's 243. Both were capable of maximum speeds over 20 knots, and both carried only the bare legal minimum number of lifeboats for the thousands of passengers on board.

Robertson's opening description of the Titan could easily have been lifted from press clippings written before the Titanic's maiden voyage.

"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," the novella begins.

Both vessels were hailed as unsinkable, and both proved all too vulnerable after striking icebergs in mid-April.

The eerie parallels between Robertson's account of the Titan's demise and the sinking of the Titanic gave the author a reputation for precognition after 1912. But Paul Heyer, Titanic scholar and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said most of the coincidences can be explained with a look at the author's biography.

"He was someone who wrote about maritime affairs," Heyer said. "He was an experienced seaman, and he saw ships as getting very large and the possible danger that one of these behemoths would hit an iceberg."

Robertson's perception of ship-building trends, combined with his understanding of transatlantic travel, gave him ample material for a story depicting a naval catastrophe.

The final product, however, doesn't focus exclusively on the Titan. The action takes place on the doomed cruiseliner for the first half, but then shifts to an improbable struggle for physical survival and spiritual redemption on the iceberg before scenes in both the U.K. and New York.

The story's primary focus is a disgraced naval officer who overcomes alcoholism, finds Christianity and regains the love of his life after the trials of the Titan's sinking.

The novella also features some unorthodox action sequences, including scenes in which the ship mows down an oncoming vessel and the hero slays a polar bear to save a small child.

"He's not exactly a great literary stylist," Heyer said of Robertson. "Moralistic tone, implausible situations, poor character development. The only saving grace of the novella is intriguing information about the ship and her fate."

The lack of literary merit made "Futility" a footnote in the years after its publication, Heyer said, adding that its reputation changed drastically after the Titanic sank.

Robertson immediately earned a reputation that he spent the rest of his career disclaiming, he said.

"Everybody ran to him and said, 'Oh my god, you're psychic.'

'No,' he said, 'I know what I'm writing about, that's all.' "