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June 24, 2008

On The Beach - Nevil Shute

On the Beach by Nevil Shute (UK / US) is one of the strangest and most depressing books that I have ever read. To understand why I make that statement I will have to talk not only about the plot but also the very end of the book. Take that as a spoiler warning.

The first thing that struck me is that the language in the book seems very old fashioned, and a bit stilted in places, having not read any other books by Nevil Shute I can't ascertain whether this is a deliberate attempt to invoke the age of the story, or the author's style. (The book was first published in 1957).

The story follows a handful of characters living in Melbourne , Australia, after a nuclear war. The Northern hemisphere has been decimated, and the Southern hemisphere tries to survive. However it is gradually revealed that the fallout has crossed the equator and is moving south in a final cloud of destruction.

It's not only the language which is stilted at times but also the characters actions. This, I'm fairly certain is deliberate, and conjures up images of "stiff-upper-lip" and extreme naivety. The characters carry on their every-day lives, either ignoring the impending doom by not believing it, or casually dismissing their inevitable demise by saying things like "we've only got a few months".

I thought the plot was going to take off at one point when a submarine is sent on a mission, up the coast of the USA. But no, because there is no escape, no hope, nowhere to run. Instead the plot just plods relentlessly towards the apocalypse.

What I found unbelievable was the apparent lack of chaos in the remaining cities. There are mentions of drunk people in the streets, but it's all glossed over, as if the worst that people would do is drink themselves towards the oblivion. It's a very optimistic view of humanity. Maybe it's correct? Even when the end is ever nearer people take their own lives in a dignified manner, choosing it almost matter-of-factly as the best choice. A farmer worries what will happen to his cows when he dies. A submarine commander feels he should go down with his ship. A sailor jumps ship to spend his days fishing, despite dangerous radiation. People go Salmon fishing in the mountains. Someone restores an old racing car. And so on.

The only horror is very near the end when the family we have been following become ill, baby included. And then there is disbelief, and grief and worry. And agonising over whether to take the baby's life. By this time I had become used to the language and the flow, and the horror cut through the disaffectedness very acutely.

And then everyone dies. Everyone.

It's a depressing sermon on the horror of nuclear weapons. It's the exact opposite of Alas Babylon. There's no hope, and because of this I didn't really enjoy the book. But I can appreciate it. I can't even imagine the impact it would have had if read on the year of it's publication, in the early years of the cold war, when destruction loomed at the press of a button.

Worth reading, but do it on a sunny day with your favourite things to hand.

5 Comments

I just stumbled on this review because I've got a service (Swamii) which monitors online for mentions of Nevil Shute. I'm a long-time fan of his work and also a long-time SF reader and fan.

I found your reaction and your comments interesting. I was curious enough to browse your site a bit but couldn't find anything about you personally. I was wondering about how old you are. I'm just about to turn 60 myself. I was about ten when this book was published and reasonably aware during, for instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis (check your history book, or Google or Wikipedia, if you need to) and I was often very conscious of the threat of nuclear annihilation which was, from time to time, very present and very real. I suspect you're of a somewhat younger generation and somewhat less influenced by that possibility as a significant part of your growing up.

I think I first became aware of Shute through seeing the movie of ON THE BEACH, which came out within a year or two of the publication of the book and had a strong public impact. There are those who argue that it helped motivate and shape the anti-nuclear movement.

For what it's worth, although I admire the novel, I'd not rank it among my top ten favorite Nevil Shute novels. He was an aircraft engineer and designer who wrote part-time to begin with. He served in secret weapons development projects during World War II. Many of his novels are about flying during the early years of its commercial development. Some are straightforward thrillers. Some have a strong flavor of SF although I'm certain he would have been horrified to be so described despite a tendency toward the mystical and supernatural in some of his work. Most of his novels focus on fairly ordinary people confronted by extraordinary circumstances and somehow rising to the challenge. And, yes, some of his work is dated, although most of it reads a little more smoothly than ON THE BEACH. It's a somewhat uncharacteristic book because, although he wasn't what I would call sunny, he wrote usually with an underlying optimism about man and his fate, individually and collectively. In this case, however, I think he was sounding a warning and leaning a bit toward the didactic.

Among my favorites, I'd very strongly recommend two of his books. TRUSTEE FROM THE TOOLROOM is a simple story about an honest man dealing with a complicated problem and finding some luck and some friendship along the way to help him do what has to be done. ROUND THE BEND is similar in some ways in the beginning but moves by slow steps into becoming something wonderful and transcendental and is one of my all-time favorite books.

If you're at all curious about Shute, you might want to check out http://www.nevilshute.org/ which is a site run by a Foundation dedicated to preserving memory of and promoting interest in his work. There's a whole lot of fascinating stuff.

And that's my two cents worth on what you wrote. I'm bookmarking your blog and I'll be checking back. There looks to be a lot of good stuff in the recent postings and in the archives.

John Douglas

I read this book in the early mid-90's while I was in Jr. High. It was probably the first apocalypse genre book I read and it had an eerie impact on me. I grew up in the Puget Sound area, where the submarine searched for signs of life in the middle of the book. So I had my area described in its death.

For me, the style and character development are a reflection of the time of the publication of this book. It was the 50's when U.S. society was reaching a peak and everyone was fitting into a social norm. Shute then describes what this 'perfect' world could seemingly do when faced with its own demise. People quietly and respectfully facing the extinction of life on the planet. A few drunks on the street also fits with the 50's mentality that bad behavior is unseen and rare.

I saw the movie as well, staring Fred Astaire. But I can't say how it differed. You should check it out.

Of course, it is a WONDERFUL book! I'm saying this because I'm obviously not allowed to disagree.

The passivity of the ending of the book was maddening for me. I kept screaming in my own mind "You've got an entire continent, you've got a nuclear submarine and tons of resources - why are you just giving up?" And indeed, no one in the book even tries to survive. I think this undercuts the message, frankly, because no one in it strives for anything, and every character is expected to behave in a completely unbelievable fashion that has no resonance to 'real' humanity. All the characters are made to do things in support of the central sermon/thesis of the book rather than behaving in ways that emerge organically from the situations, or what we know of human nature. It all rang false, like propaganda rather than drama. I felt cheated because in doing this, the book undercuts its own power.

And it would have been such an easy thing to save, you know? Shute could have made the same point vastly more effectively by having the last remnants of humanity desparately cobbling together a plan to survive, and then ultimately failing. *That* would have been human and believable and poignient, as it is in the novelization of "Dr. Strangelove" or in Disch's "The Genocides."