When Victor Hugo, in his most dramatic vein, told the tale of a cannon that came loose from its moorings and plunged unchecked about the deck of a vessel at sea, dealing destruction to the crew, critics crowed right and left that he was the most arrant Romanticist, and that the scene was too far-fetched to carry conviction. Another of his most famous passages met with the same scepticism--the under-water battle with an octopus. Yet within six months, both of these incidents have been performed on the stage of everyday life. Last fall the newspapers told of a small sail-boat, only six miles from the scene of Hugo's story, which was actually attacked by a gigantic octopus. One tentacle, grasping the mast, almost upset the boat before the tough feeler could be backed off with an axe; another reached up and clutched a man; and only after an hour's battle was the monster forced back into the sea.
Now comes the news of a drum of steel cable aboard an Atlantic freighter, that shook loose in a storm, crashed into the forecastle, plunged back and forth as the ship tossed on heavy seas, killed two men asleep in their bunks, and injured dozens of others before it could be secured. If Hugo was not a prophet, at least he can lay some claim to veracity.
Instances like this of the cable-coil call up the vision of a new Frankenstein. The terror of the men on board the ship, helpless before the caprices of the huge drum, can be readily imagined even by those who have not read "Quatre-vingt-treize". The picture of man cowering before the creations of his own hand, which have grown beyond his control and turn to "plague the inventor," is a favorite spectra with a certain school of philosophers, and with alarmists in general. "R. U. R.", on the New York stage, is a fanciful prophecy of what man's mechanical ingenuity might lead to, and that prophecy is not a cheerful one. Samuel Butler's "Book of the Machines", which argues the menace of matter over mind, is the most engrossing chapter in "Erewhon" And a writer of even more recent date, a scientist of repute, has lately filled columns of the public press with his concern over man's future amidst the complicated machinery, his own creations, to which he has gradually become a slave.
There is something impressive and even ominous in any of these pictures. But the creator of "Erewhon" leaves us one small source of comfort. Mechanical contrivances cannot yet propagate their kind.