On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

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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.

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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.

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