On The Beach (1957)
Nevil Shute (1899-1960)
Nevil Shute's On The Beach is one of the most devastating novels I have read. Reading it a second time shakes one even more than the first reading, because, knowing how the story ends shatters one's natural tendency to believe that there must be some hope of escape. In the second reading, every decision, comment and action of the characters, some of whom carry a false hope deep into the story, becomes more painful to observe. This fact makes it a much different reading experience from most other post-apocalyptic novels.
The story opens in late 1962, and takes place principally in Melbourne, on the eastern end of the south coast of Australia. A year before, there had been a month long nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, accidentally started, but eventually involving all of the major powers. Since the end of the war, no contact has been established with anyone in the northern hemisphere. More critically, the thick dust of radiation that polluted the northern half of the globe is slowly drifting southward, with cities in northern Australia already dropping out of contact.
A US naval submarine, her crew having managed to survive the war, is docked in the Melbourne harbor. The story develops around Australian and US naval personnel, who head north on a submarine mission to understand and report back on the extent of the destruction and the spread of the on-coming radiation.
The focus of the novel, however, is on how people might deal with an imminent, but not immediate, end of everything they know. Do you plant flowers in the spring if aware that no one will be there to see them bloom in the fall, or any future fall? That is, fundamentally, the question that Shute examines in his story. The recognition of their situation his characters finally come to, with various degrees and manners of acceptance, is The Last of the Mohicans writ large: "My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans."
Other reviews / information:
A review in Challenging Destiny, a science fiction and fantasy magazine.
A review on the blog Something about Nothing.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf