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Entry updated 15 January 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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The loss on 15 April 1912 of RMS Titanic – at that time the largest passenger liner in existence – following its 14 April collision with an iceberg and the discovery of a serious lifeboat shortage, is an early and still very well remembered twentieth-century Icon of Disaster. Though direct relevance to sf is marginal, it is notable that four sf authors given entries in this book died in the shipwreck: John Jacob Astor, Jacques Futrelle, F D Millet and W T Stead. Astor and Stead were last seen clinging to the same raft before they drowned.

Apparent fictional Predictions of the calamity aroused much comment after the event. These include: two nonfantastic shipwreck stories by W T Stead, being "From the Old World to the New" (Christmas 1892 The Review of Reviews), featuring an iceberg collision, and "How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor" (22 March 1886 Pall Mall Gazette), with many deaths resulting from a lifeboat shortage; Morgan Robertson's Futility: The Wreck of the Titan (1898; vt The Wreck of the Titan; Or, Futility 1912; exp as coll, vt The Wreck of the "Titan" 1914; vt The Wreck of the Titan; Or, Futility: The Doomed Unsinkable Ship 1974), in which a great new ship called the Titan steams at reckless speed into an iceberg and sinks; and Gerhart Hauptmann's supernatural novel Atlantis (1912; trans 1912), serialized only a month beforehand and featuring the mysterious sinking of a similar ship. Stead's supposed prescience is linked with Spiritualism [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] in the historical-supernatural novel Distant Waves (2009) by Suzanne Weyn, whose characters aboard the Titanic include not only Astor and Stead but also Nikola Tesla, equipped with various Inventions.

This maritime drama has been frequently filmed, famously as A Night to Remember (1958) directed by Roy Ward Baker and perhaps most spectacularly as Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron. Hans Magnus Enzensberger's book-length poem, Der Untergang der Titanic (1978; trans author as The Sinking of the Titanic 1980 chap), turns the sinking into a legend of the fall of the West. Connie Willis's novel Passage (2001) partly takes place on the Titanic, though the ship's role is largely to provide a home for the book's larger themes of death and afterlife. More science-fictional is the concept of raising the wreck, whose scattering across the seabed has been extensively mapped since the optimistic speculations of Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic! (1976), filmed as Raise the Titanic! (1980), and Arthur C Clarke's The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990). The fatal night is visited via Time Travel in various works including an episode of The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981), Dean Wesley Smith's Laying the Music to Rest (1989) and Allen Appel's The Sea of Time (2012 ebook).

Other sf stories re-imagine the wreck in Spaceship terms, as in "The Star Lord" (June 1953 Imagination) by Boyd Ellanby, "The Corianis Disaster" (May 1960 Science Fiction Stories) by Murray Leinster, the Futurama episode "A Flight to Remember" (1999) – which spoofs the Cameron film with Black Holes standing in for icebergs – and the Doctor Who Christmas special "Voyage of the Damned" (2007), whose spaceship design imitates the period style of the Titanic. In Douglas Adams's computer Adventure Videogame, Starship Titanic (1999), the titular Starship impacts a house on Earth to characteristically comic rather than tragic effect. Jack L Chalker alludes to a famous strand of the story – the band that kept on playing to the end – in his book title Dance Band on the Titanic (coll 1988). A ghost evocative of the iconic power of the wreck may be found in Robert Serling's Something's Alive on the Titanic (1990). In Fantômas in America (2007), a novelization of the American 20-part serial Fantômas (1920-1921) directed by Edward Sedgwick, David White elaborates upon the apparent drowning of Fantômas in the wreck of the Titanic (seemingly because Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, authors of the original novels, had tired of him) and details his remarkable survival. Rhys Hughes's Steampunk tale, The Coandă Effect: A Corto Maltese Adventure (2010 Romania), follows southwards the subsequent course of the fatal iceberg. [DRL]

see also: MacCowan Greenlee; Under the Sea.

further reading

  • The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998) edited by Martin Gardner [anth: rev of book originally published 1986: includes above-cited fiction by Morgan Robertson and W T Stead, with further related material and extensive editorial commentary: hb/photographic]


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