On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…

Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.

Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the 1959 movie version

It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.

If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.

Book 50 of 90

I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”

Nevil Shute

But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.

A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15 of 20

43 thoughts on “On the Beach by Nevil Shute

  1. Wow! So glad you enjoyed this. Most of Nevil Shute’s characters are stoic, strong and are the type of people that I would want to like be in trying circumstances. I saw a remake of this movie a few years ago set in Melbourne around 2000 where the masses were behaving in the worst possible ways. Much more likely, but nothing to live up to…

    • Ha! It doesn’t surprise me they jazzed it up in the remake – I doubt cinema-goers today would put up with a film where everyone just accepted what was going to happen to them. But I wish society was still more like this one, full of decent, sensible people, instead of the mass hysteria that seems to go on constantly now. We can’t even cope with Brexit much less the end of the world… 😉

        • I can’t get too worried about it – I expect we’ll be fine either way. So everybody hates me, because we’re all supposed to hold fanatical views one way or the other and panic over dire predictions of disaster on a daily basis! I reckon they all need to eat more chocolate, and chill… 😂

          • As long as you can still get chocolate! (That’s meant to be a joke… maybe not a very funny one!) I think you’re taking a balanced approach. Remember all of the fuss about the millennium bug? It was a big opportunity for the media to sell stories but life went on then too.

            • Aaaarghhhh! Now I’m panicking! I’d been planning to stockpile catfood just in case (just in case we run out and they eat me, that is) so I must start stockpiling chocolate too! Ha – yes, and they spent zillions preparing for the millennium bug too. I keep pointing out that Australia, Canada and New Zealand seem to survive outside the EU, but I think common-sense has gone extinct…

  2. This is a book whose title I think I’ve known all my adult life without a clear idea of its content. I have read quite a bit of dystopian fiction, and this is a different story; a quiet acceptance and debate of how to let go and die, without any of the usual islands, valleys, caves or other worlds of hope. That does interest me.

    • I was surprised at the lack of hope in this one, although it felt much more realistic from that perspective than all the ones where some miracle comes along to save either our bodies or our souls. Of course, the people of parts of NZ were the last to go, so should it happen in real life, I’ll be heading your way with my refugee card and the cats… 😉

      • You can have the spare room (if a tsunami hasn’t got us by then – we live near the coast). There’s so much that might happen, for many years I’ve lived in quiet amazement and gratitude it hasn’t come our way … except for the 2010/11 earthquakes.

        • Yes, we get so little extreme weather or other forms of natural disasters here that it’s too easy to assume everything will be OK – we get complacent, I think, and forget the world is inter-connected…

    • I did know the basic story and I realised I definitely hadn’t read the book before, so I suspect I must have seen the film long ago, but I’m going to try to watch it again – though I always say that about films and then never do!

  3. I found myself really caught up, FictionFan, in your description of what this story would be like if it were written today. I think you’re absolutely right that it would be a much different story to the one Shute wrote. I think the fact that he concentrates on the characters is what gives this story its power. And it’s a sober lesson to us all…

    • Ha – I feel I’ve read so many dystopian novels where everyone descends into that kind of beast-like chaos! This was a refreshing change and maybe so soon after WW2 people would have been more accepting – it’s the years of peace and prosperity that have made us all go soft, I think. Not that I’m advocating regular wars… 😉

  4. I enjoyed your review, particularly your speculation about how this book would be if written today. If adapted for the screen today, the developers would probably add a bunch of action to it that would make the story very different.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, it is terrifying, and it did make me start wondering how we’d treat the subject today and also how we’d react in real life. I hope we never have to find out…

  5. This sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, I think your estimation of how such a story would be written today, not to mention people’s reaction if such things were to happen in the real world are pretty spot on, which I find far more unsettling than the content of the book itself. Grim as the subject matter is, I think I would find Shute’s crumb of hope in humanity rather refreshing, despite the fact that there was possibly a degree of wish fulfillment going on. I’m starting to notice both in literature and in the real world that atributes such as stoicism, inner strength and grace are increasingly being dismissed or mistaken for passivity and/or weakness, which is incredibly sad.

    • Yes, I think one of the reasons I’m attracted to early sci-fi but not contemporary stuff is exactly because I enjoy that stiff upper lip attitude so much more than idea that we’d all rush about screaming and being horrible in a crisis. I’ve been thinking about why it seems so different and I wonder if it was the constant wars that made people more stoical, and if the years of peace and prosperity have actually led to selfishness and a lack of feeling of community. Not that I’m advocating regular wars! But I do think they tended to bring people together in a common cause whereas now we all seem to spend our time yelling at each other over relative trivia and thinking of ourselves as victims of something or other… oh dear! How depressing! Here, have some chocolate… 😉

  6. Excellent review! I’ve never read it (nor seen the film) and now I want to. After reading Command and Control by Eric Schlosser last year, I find it a wonder we survived the rise of the nuclear age. People were frightened and paranoid, but honestly didn’t have a clue just how bad it really was! Scary thing is, we still should be frightened…but with the addition of all the other things you listed, who has the time to worry about them all?! I’ll just plan my garden for next year and be oblivious. 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 Hahaha – yes, I must admit I retreated happily to a nice vintage crime book and buried my head back in the sand as soon as I’d finished reading this! My sister, who was about eight years older than me, remembered getting nuclear drills in school, and even in my own childhood people still talked about the “four-minute warning” and used to joke about how they’d spend that last four minutes. Now we seem to have just accepted a nuclear world and hope our leaders wouldn’t be crazy enough. But when you look at who has control of the weapons it amazes me we haven’t wiped ourselves out already… 😱

    • Hahaha! I was thinking while I was reading it that Britain can’t even cope with Brexit, so what chance is there of us accepting the end of the world with anything approaching calm… 😉

  7. If the puffed up idiot with the big hair keeps puffing himself up and deliberately provoking that other puffed up guy in North Korea we may well be staring this scenario in the face. It’s years since I read this book but it was fantastic even though terrifying….

    • I know! It’s actually quite astonishing when you look at who has control of the weapons that we haven’t already wiped ourselves out. And one of the things I liked about this one was how he showed that the initial war was over something quite trivial and then just got out of hand…

  8. I haven’t read this one, and, despite your excellent review, I don’t plan to. It sounds much too depressing to me! Our world has gazillions of problems — many of our own making — and immersing myself in an end-of-the-world saga like this isn’t my cuppa! Call me Pollyanna, but my faith sustains a more positive outlook!

    • I usually prefer a more optimistic approach too, but although the subject is bleak, the way the characters behaved with strength and dignity lifted it – if only we* could behave with a bit more dignity now the world might not be in such a bad way…

      *Society, I mean, not you and me… 😉

  9. I read this one a while ago and as you say it’s well written although I found it a wee bit depressing. I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of his books though, especially The Chequer Board.

    • I usually prefer more hope even in dystopian stories, but the humanity and decency of the characters lifted the tone and stopped it from being too bleak for me, just about. This is the only one of his I’ve read, so thanks for the recommendation – I definitely want to try more of his stuff now.

  10. So true that we (humans) excel in finding new, creative ways of potentially destroying ourselves and our planet.

    I might get dystopia overload, if I read it now (I just finished my Top 5 Tuesday Dystopia post for tomorrow and I am halfway through the Handmaid’s Tale), but you have definitely tempted me to read this at a later stage.

    • Yes, it’s one of the things we’re especially good at!

      Haha – I have to be careful to leave long gaps between dystopian novels, in case the sheer pointlessness of existence begins to weigh me down. *reaches for the medicinal chocolate* I’ll look forward to seeing if you will tempt me tomorrow (today, now, I suppose…) 😀

  11. Oh my this book sounds like a difficult read. Partly because I secretly fear that the end of the world will happen during my lifetime and I’m going to have to figure out my way through that mess. I love the sarcasm of this post btw. As a woman who doesn’t understand science, I appreciated that comment even more LOL

    • I must admit I was hoping global warming would take a bit longer to fully materialise so I could miss the worst, but it’s all happening while I’m still alive, which seems so unfair! Hahaha – I do love the way women were portrayed in the ’50s, as sort of pretty but pathetic pets! 😀

  12. On the Beach is available free on line from fadedpage.com along with many others of his such as A Town Like Alice.

    • Thanks for that! 😀 fadedpage is great, isn’t it? I’ve found lots of vintage crime there and their selection is growing fast. And so far every one I’ve read has been very well formatted.

  13. Great review! This has been on my TBR for a long time. I’m intrigued by your review but it makes me somewhat more reluctant to read it. These days, the end of the world seems closer than ever and I fear our society is more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than Shute’s version.

    • Ha! I very much fear you’re right! This one is a great read, so I do hope you’ll find yourself in the mood for it one day, but I’m afraid I don’t think we’d behave with as much dignity as these 1950s characters – this is why I want a time machine!

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