On the Beach by Nevil Shute
On the Beach During the 1950’s the Cold War made a nuclear bomb war a looming possibility. Some of the apocalyptic books of the time addressed the subject – one of my favorites being Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. The apocalyptic/dystopic sub-genre of books has not gone out of style although the methods of the world’s destruction or devolvement changes. Nevil Shute was writing with the nuclear bomb threat hanging over his head. Instead of writing about what happened in the bombed countries, though, Shute took a different view. On the Beach is a poignant yet chilling story of the people who weren’t bombed but had to wait for their deaths. The Northern Hemisphere was destroyed by the nuclear and cobalt bombs. The Southern Hemisphere was destroyed by the creeping radiation fallout.
Peter Holmes is a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Navy. He lives near Melbourne with his wife Mary and infant daughter. He hasn’t worked in months because no ships have been going out. There’s little fuel and no one to defend against.
Holmes receives a new assignment as the Australian liaison officer on the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Scorpion. The Scorpion was one of the few American vessels to have survived the war more by luck than by design. Commander Dwight Towers is the captain of the submarine. Holmes joins Towers as they sail north to see if anyone or anything is still alive in Northern Australia. As of now, at the current rate of weather patterns, the Melbourne area can expect the radiation fallout in about nine months. But Northern Australia has been covered for a while and no communication has been received in that time.
Before they sail Holmes invites Towers back to his home for a weekend. Mary drafts Moira Davidson to help keeps Towers company in case the officer gets maudlin for his abandoned home and memories. Moira, a woman in her early 20s, drinks and parties to ignore what will happen to everyone within a year. Men are a diversion for her and she is happy to entertain Towers.
On the Beach follows these four people over the next nine months as they try to make sense of their dying world. Some people turn to thrills, including one friend who buys and races a bright red Ferrari. Others, like Moira, turn to alcohol or sex. Towers looks forward to home and being reunited with his wife and children. Mary acts like an ostrich, preferring not to see what is going to happen. Holmes is a solid support, facing what has to be but not despairing or acting out. He is living the life he wants as a naval officer and a content husband and sees no reason to change what he is doing.
Shute gives a picture of humanity dying off with dignity. When On the Beach opens cars are mostly already off the road due to the lack of fuel. Electricity is still available as long as they can mine coal to run the power plants. Crime is ignored in this novel – what’s the point when everyone will be dead this time next year anyway? Shute uses a deft hand and fine writing to present a gentle story that fits the era when it was written. That gentleness underscores the chilling reality of what has to happen by the end of On the Beach.
This book is dated by its tone but not its subject. If On the Beach were written today it would much more graphic. Also, the “little woman” wouldn’t be shuffled off to care for the home and the mending to let the men worry about world events. Yet it is the deceptive tone that gives this book much of its power. While it’s an easy read, On the Beach is a book that will stay with the reader long after the pages are closed.