Review: On the Beach

On the BeachI’ve always been a fan of apocalyptic literature, and I’ve heard Nevil Shute’s On the Beach mentioned often as a must-read in the genre.

The basic plot is that the countries of the northern hemisphere have engaged in all-out nuclear war, a war lasting about a month. Between the nuclear blasts and subsequent radiation sickness, everyone in Russia, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America are dead. The story takes place in Australia, where the eerily calm survivors – there were no bombs for them – are waiting as the radiation creeps southward. Our heroes are an American submarine commander, stranded by the war in southern waters, his Australian liaison, the liaison’s wife, and a female friend of theirs who befriends the submarine commander. We wait and watch with them until the end. (Spoilers ahead.)

I think I should have read it twenty years ago. Back then, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, before the rise of terrorism world-wide, with the memory of the cold war still fresh in my mind, this story might have been more compelling, at least compelling enough to override the faults of the writing. As it was, well… it wasn’t terrible. I finished it, in fact I read the entire second half in one go, mostly so I could find out if there was some gruesome or amazing ending that would make this book as brilliant as I had been assured it was.

No such luck. Shute’s not a lyrical writer, for one thing. His central characters are decently sketched, but no more than that, and secondary characters are stick figures. And, he’s a man of his times. His times being 1957 (the book purports to take place in 1963), this means women are secretaries or mothers, there are no black or Asian people (in Australia?), and everybody smokes, so if that kind of thing irritates you, you are warned. He’s also rather old-womanish about sex, sickness, and death, which to my 21st century eyes was odd in a book about the end of the world. This fussiness might explain his charming fantasy that, with the entire country given three months to live, most people would simply carry on with what they had been doing before.

I suppose a lot of people would, if they could, once past the initial shock. The young couple, the liaison and his wife, plan their garden right up until the end, which is rather sweet. A doctor removes a tumor from a woman, giving her “a few more years.” The submarine commander maintains Navy discipline.

Most people continue going to work, so that, conveniently, the electricity, phones, public transit, and “food supplies” are uninterrupted, until everyone starts to get sick. I wondered if Shute genuinely believed that would happen, or if he simply didn’t have any idea how everything fits together in a modern country, and how it would break down, for example, once there was no more gas. That’s a shame, because one thing I love about apocalyptic novels is seeing how the author imagines it all coming apart. I would also imagine that billionaires would still be trying to make money right up to the end. There would be crime, looting, riots, and general panic. Someone would surely be trying to evacuate, or find a cure for radiation sickness, or praying for rescue from God or aliens. What would be happening over in South Africa, with apartheid? That civilization would collapse seems to me to be self-evident, though I could believe that small pockets could still exist, of people simply carrying on. But in a city the size of Melbourne? In every city everywhere, all the people would just lie quietly down in bed to die?

The 1950s were an innocent time, in many ways.

I felt like Shute was trying to shock his readers by making us think of the possibility of the world ending in three months’ time, or by showing us how callous people might be about death, toward the end, or by making every one of his characters commit suicide. I grew up in a very different world from him. None of that was the least bit disturbing to me. His whole apocalypse was really rather tame. I don’t believe that everyone would accept the news in the same way, and it made for a less interesting story.

I might watch the movie, just for the character of Moira, and her interactions with Dwight, the submarine commander. Played by Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck, that should be fun. But I’m in no rush.

The strongest thing about the novel is the anti-nuclear war message, which was apparently controversial in 1957. But I absorbed the anti-nuke message in puberty. Maybe it was there in part because of this book, in which case, I tip my hat to it.

As to wondering what I would do with three months to live – been there, done that. I’ve been imagining the end of the world since I was a kid.

4 Responses to “Review: On the Beach”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    Watch the movie.

    I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen both the 1960s and 2000s versions (I prefer the ’60s one, if only because of Cary Grant and Ava Gardner).

    I’m with you on all that’s absent from the story, and yeah, it is rather tame. No mayhem, little violence, no diseased or rotting bodies.

    Just. . .nothing.

    But the final shot of the movie is all about the absence. No corpses, but not much else, either. Just empty buildings and empty streets and life no more.

    It’s not particularly chilling, but it is poignant.

    I like to think the world will outlast me. Whatever comforts this doubter can find, among them is the notion that life, in some form, goes on.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    Does it have to be human life? In the book, much was made of the fact that lots of animals are more resistant to radiation sickness than humans (I have no idea if this is true). There’s a funny bit where a farmer flips out when he learns the rabbits will outlast him; there’s a long history of battle between Australians and (non-native) rabbits.

    I would like my niece and nephew to live out their lives comfortably, but for my own sake, I don’t much care. The universe goes on, anyway. In fact, one thing that bothers me a lot about death is that I’ll miss whatever happens next, in human history. That sucks.

    Thanks for the suggestion, I will certainly give the newer version a miss.

  3. Shanghai Slim Says:

    Have you seen “The Quiet Earth, a 1985 post-apocalyptic set in New Zealand? Some kind of American energy grid system causes the instant disappearance of all people, except one man.

  4. soundofrain Says:

    Yes, I have, Slim. All I remember is the scene where he sets up a bunch of mannequins and cardboard cutouts, to make an audience, to whom he makes a speech, complete with cheering from a sound effects record. And I remember the ending made no sense at all. I should watch that again. I’m on an apocalypse kick.

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