On the Beach by Shute, Nevil, 1957

On the Beach by Shute, Nevil - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I guess I have been on a bit of a post-apocalypse kick again. I go through this every so often. In the last week I have read and watched quite bit of post-apocalypse stories, including Galapagos, by Vonnegut, and Jeremiah, starring Luke Perry. But I also re-read On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. It's not the earliest catastrophe novel, but it is one of the first modern post-apocalypse books, and it has the distinct honor of having been made into an Academy Award nominated movie that was directed by Stanley Kramer and starred Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins. It was also one of the first SF books that I ever read, and I am happy to report that it gets even better with time. Four out of five stars with a reduction from five only for being slightly overwritten and for being a tad bit dated.

On the Beach is truly a post-apocalypse book. It follows the fates of several characters from Australia and the United States for several months as they await their deaths from nuclear fallout. Set in the mid 1960's the story is preceded by a month-long third World War, a nuclear conflict that was started by the Albanians which quickly brought in the Russians, the Americans, then finally the Chinese. In the short war cobalt bombs rained down on just bout every population center in the northern hemisphere. Very quickly thereafter the nations of the southern hemisphere lost contact with the cities and nations of the northern, even if they were not impacted directly by the bombs. Two years later the few surviving nations in the southern hemisphere were watching and measuring as an almost palpable wave of fallout moved closer and closer to them each day, held back only by global wind patterns. Stationed in Melbourne was the flag-ship of the devastated U.S. Navy, a nuclear submarine called the Scorpion. The Captain of that vessel somehow evaded destruction during the war along with a sister-vessel that was penned in Rio de Janeiro. Both submarines ventured forth from their home bases as time allowed for exploring the devastated world. The submarine in Brazil explored the East Coast of the United States and Europe and found only destruction. But the Scorpion went up the West Coast all the way to Alaska, and while San Francisco was a total ruin (something that was changed for the movie), Seattle was still in one piece, though as dead as one would expect after a nuclear holocaust.

The real story however were the stories of the crew and their families as they awaited death. Rather than the typical story of bedlam and murder, Shute delivers something akin to one of Wyndham's "cosy catastrophe" novels. Though the specter of death colored literally every interaction and conversation in the book, the way that these people chose to meet their fates was somewhat inspiring. Most of them wound up availing themselves of the government prepared suicide pills, or syringes for the babies. But they all had several months before the belt of radioactivity reached them and during that time they lived their lives as fully and completely as they possibly could. With stubbornness and determination they strove to keep their culture alive as long as possible. Almost none of them gave up on their duties or chores, and even did things that could have easily have been blown off such as mending fences, planting gardens for the next season, preparing the young for schooling, and even procreating. There were few refugees, even after the wave overcame Northern Australia, no religious kooks, and no crime, though there is quite a bit of good natured drunkenness. To me this book always read like a love letter to Australia, which makes sense as Shute moved there only a few years prior to publishing this book.

The best aspect of this book by far though were the incredibly complex and dense interpersonal relationships that make up the bulk of Shute's book. I don't think that there was one character in the book that I hated. Most of them keep a pretty even keel even though they can almost watch death coming to them. They are all quite decent and wholesome, though they do some crazy things to help deal with the stress. For example, one group of auto enthusiasts decided to put together the "Last Ever" Australian Grand Prix. During the time trials several decided to swill some brandy before the qualifying rounds. Most of them died in a big crack-up, but even after they died it did not seem that any of them had made a mistake or done the wrong thing. They died doing what they wanted to do, and they did much more gracefully than if they had become bedridden with radiation poisoning. The characters were so well developed that I feel like I'm robbing from you by not going into more detail about them, and to say the least this review will suffer by ignoring them, but when you read the book I'm sure that element will strike you with its complexity as well. The movie is an excellent substitute, but only because it tells its own derivative story really well too. It is quite different, so the book should be read too. Look for this one be remade in the future with an ecological/climate change theme.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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