On the Beach

I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead, however this book is over fifty years old at this point so maybe that doesn’t matter. It’s also a bit of a morbid post but that’s the nature of the subject.

I’ve recently caught up with a science fiction classic that I have neglected – Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. This 1957 novel chronicles the lives of a group of people in post nuclear world war Australia. Apocalypse as a fictional premise has been a hot commodity for the last several years, mostly brought on this time around by the success of Fallout 3 and the The Road. Both are modern classics in their own right, of course, and that so many works are derivative of them is to be expected, though it is growing tiresome. Fear of the apocalypse in one form or another has been with us since long before of course and has  gone in and out of fashion as a thing to worry about. The greatest difference between On the Beach and the other recent texts and media that work against that bleak canvas is that these people are living the last days and it is only a matter of time before they are all killed by the radioactive fallout that is settling ever further south. This isn’t a novel about survivors. This is a novel about the last people to die.

Shute’s prose is dated in the same way that all mid-century English fiction usually is – the stilted, golly gee whilikers way that everyone talks to each other is often difficult to read on this side of the 1960s. I found it difficult to stay with the text because of this but did anyway, precisely because I could see there was going to be no rescue for these people. I wanted to read their story most of all because it would not go on once the novel was over. Few (if any) other popular end of the world scenario are so dire. There are always survivors, and if it’s a video game you are of course one of them. If it is a novel or a film we are invited to identify with the protagonists and therefore are one of the survivors. They do this because this what we all want to believe – that if the world as we know it ever does come to an end in our lifetime, some people will likely survive and our mind immediately wants to believe, does believe, that we would naturally be one of them. I’ve made the assertion before that most Westerners, certainly most North Americans, believe themselves to, on some level, be the protagonist in the novel that is their life. That’s complete discussion for another time, of course, however I think you will get the general idea here. If we are to identify with the cast or characters of a story, we don’t want it to be the ones that are dead and forgotten by the end of the story.

Shute did not write this novel to entertain. It is a difficult read because of the subject matter (the writing is clear and by no means difficult, high school reading level at the highest). Shute was himself aviation engineer that operated his own aviation company that supplied Great Britain with not a few weapons. This book is clearly a cautionary tale written by someone in the know.

It should be made clear that the nuclear war in this book is total and lasts about a month. Assuming only a few bombs fell, it would probably be the case that humanity would survive. However On the Beach presents us with a not unlikely scenario in which the leaders of the major powers are quickly killed off and the war is pressed on by subordinates, ever decreasing in rank as each is killed off in turn and another picks up the fight with no one left to negotiate peace – only follow the orders of dead men.

Why this novel has stuck around is that it challenges the reader to consider the worst case scenario, the real worst case scenario that we have in our power to end ourselves and that if that happens you will not be spared because you are not special. Even if there is a less intense nuclear exchange, millions will die and the chances are better that you will be one of them than one of the survivors – especially if you live in a major metro. It wouldn’t be exciting like Mad Max,  it wouldn’t be a hard fought victory like The Road,  and it wouldn’t be fun like Fallout.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Note with a bang but a whimper.

The Hollow Men