Monday, July 7, 2014

On the Beach: Review

Some games are fun even when you lose. Even when you know you're going to lose before you start. It's fun just playing them. (p. 65)

On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957) is my second apocalyptic read this year to focus on Australia. Philip Wylie's Triumph (click for review) gave us a world where nuclear war had wiped out nearly everyone in the northern hemisphere, but Australia and most of the southern hemisphere had escaped nuclear fallout through wind currents that seemed to stay on their respective sides of the equator. This makes rebuilding possible--and man rises from the ashes of his folly. Shute provides a much darker vision. Though the nuclear war in his novel is a short one--lasting only 37 days--the overall destruction is much greater and the seismic records from the war show that about 4,700 bombs were dropped. Again, most of the damage occurs in the northern hemisphere, but this time the wind currents cannot save those living south of the equator... the radiation makes its way slowly towards the few remaining survivors in southern Australia.

In Melbourne, the largest of Australia's southernmost cities, Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes of the Australian navy is appointed as a liaison to the U.S.S. Scorpion, one of the last two nuclear submarines belonging to the U.S. navy. There have been weak Morse code signals coming in from Seattle and the submarine, currently following orders from Australia, is ordered to travel north and investigate. The mission is two-fold: to find the source of the transmissions and to discover if a scientist's theory that the further away from the equator the lower the radiation. Unfortunately, the mission brings back bad news all around--the Morse code has resulted from an unsteady window frame knocking against the transmission key as it teeters in the wind and the radiation samples prove that the fallout is spreading steadily towards all regions on earth. From the time the book starts, those in Australia have six months or less left.

A classic that has held up for over fifty years. Shute's novel is a sobering and harrowing look at how ordinary people might deal withe ultimate nightmare. Most of them choose to conduct themselves as if everything were normal and life would go on after the six month deadline they've been given. Holmes and his wife plan a garden, the father of their friend Moira mends fences and continues prepping his farm for the next season's planting, Commander Towers of the Scorpion buys presents for the family waiting for him back in the States. Some, like scientist John Osborne who buys and races the fast car he always longed for, decide to live life to the fullest--doing things they always wanted to do but kept putting off. Underlying each conversation is the acceptance that the end is coming and there's nothing to be done about it 

It is rather horrifying to think that, as T. S. Eliot wrote, the world may end "not with a bang but a whimper." Each one quietly accepting the end of life as they know it--slowly succumbing to radiation sickness or avoiding the messy ending by taking the suicide pills offered by the Australian government. And it is equally horrifying to realize that most of those who die had absolutely nothing to do with the the decisions made to launch the bombs that destroy everyone. A heart-breaking story--and a different take on the apocalyptic tale. One that focuses on the everyday rather than the major events. ★★★


Quotes:
You've always known you were going to die some time. Well, now you know when. That's all. Just make the most of what you've got left. (John Osborne, p. 88)

It's not the end of the world at all. It's only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan't be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us. (Osborne, p. 89)

Some kinds of silliness you just can't stop. I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honor requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there's not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness. (Peter Holmes, p. 301)

3 comments:

Anne Bennett said...

I read this book YEARS ago and it has stuck with me ever since. I think of it often. What would I do/how would I behave if I knew the world was ending?

fredamans said...

I had to scroll back up and check the date on this book. It seemed so relevant to today too. I'm thinking this is a book I would enjoy.
Great review!

Ryan said...

I have always meant to read this one. I read Alas Babylon by Pat Frank in high school, and ever since this one has been on my radar. One day I will get to it.