A cloud of nuclear fallout has engulfed everything outside of the city you call home. Radio contact with the rest of the world has been lost and impending doom slowly creeps towards you. With each passing day it becomes harder to hold on to the concept of a functional society. The only thing left to do is to pickle yourself with brandy, chain smoke and hastily organize a death race with the last drops of fuel left on Earth.
Neville Shute’s novel, On the Beach was first published in 1957. World War II was still fresh in the mind, powerful countries had drawn their curtains leaving room for uncomfortable speculation about further conflicts and the atomic exclamation point that put an end to the war was poisoning thoughts worldwide. It was a time when it was thought that the collapse of civilization was going to come from an outside force. A xenophobic chokehold spread over western countries and silence was taken as a sign of hostile plotting. Then there was Australia.
On the Beach takes place in Melbourne, one of the southern most cities of any real population in the world. A sort of World War III has finally dawned and due to some horrible miscommunications, around 16 countries in the northern hemisphere have unleashed their cobalt cored nuclear bombs and human life is now nonexistent north of the equator. The focus of On the Beach is not the ‘why?’ of the war, but of the ‘what to do now?’ The war lasted just 37 days, leaving the population in the southern hemisphere scratching their heads. Due to the nature of the global wind currents, nuclear fallout has yet to reach as far as Australia and some South American and African countries, but it seems inevitable that it will completely encompass the world eventually.
One of the last living Americans is the captain of the U.S.S. Scorpion, Dwight Towers. He takes refuge with his sub in Melbourne and quickly makes friends with Australian navy officer Peter Holmes and his wife Mary, who are new parents struggling with familial logistics more than the coming apocalypse. They introduce Towers to a young, reckless, alcoholic named Moira. Out of these four main characters, Moira is the only one that seems to be poorly coping with the idea that their existence is limited. Everyone else seems content working at the jobs they had before the war and going about life as usual. Moira on the other hand is torn. She’s too young to start a family, which is what she really wants, so instead she resorts to living ‘loosely’ and drinking heavily.
Shute keeps the emotional tone of the story of the end of the world suppressed. Such a serious subject as committing suicide when it becomes obvious that the radiation poising is setting in is never dealt with wild sensation. The characters don’t go crazy; there are no riots, murders, rapes or drug abuse. Instead society continues as usual until the cogs in the machine can’t turn any longer. Some succumb to recklessness and vice, but overall, people stick to the order that they’re used to. The book sends a good message that we may not be able to control when we go out, but we can choose to do it with some dignity.
-Kevin, Interlibrary Loan