On The Beach by Nevil Shute
This is the most depressing book I have ever read.
I bought this book in the mid-1980s and with good intentions, set it on the shelf to be read next. Books continued to arrive and this one stayed on the perpetual “I’ll get to that one sometime” list. In a way, I am glad that I read this now, as I think it has had more impact on me. However, it might have done me some good to read this one back then.
The story is a character study of the ways in which a group of people face certain death. The story is simply that the world endured World War 3 and the nuclear nations have enveloped the world in a cloud of radiation that is quickly making its way from the northern hemisphere to the south pole. As it moves, all humans are killed by the radiation sickness. The characters are living in and around Melbourne Australia, which would be the last major city to succumb to the engulfing cloud.
There are several subplots of truncated romance, a military expedition to the north and even some auto racing. But the end result for everyone is the same – the end comes. The end of loves, of families, of future plans. And for everyone, it is an end that is far earlier than they thought it would be.
This was a stark commentary on the world that was under the threat of nuclear war. Published in 1957, it was a dark reminder of the real consequence of the use of the new weapons of terror that had been unleashed, first in Hiroshima, then as a threat of complete annihilation during the Cold War. We would do well to remember that this threat has not been removed.
I said that this is the most depressing book I have ever read. The reason is that it so effectively communicates in the most subtle ways, the imminent doom that is facing the population. One of the devices that the author uses is the continued, normal human activity that the people engage in. They plant gardens they will never harvest, begin construction that they will never finish, buy presents for their families that were already lost in the north. And each time they do this or mention a future plan, the reader is hit with the desire to tell them, “Stop this! Its insanity”
It is the innocent, non-nuclear countries of the southern hemisphere that are the last holdouts. They also pay the price for the folly of the powers that went to war. It is said that when Elephants fight, only the grass is injured. This story illustrates that when the Nuclear Powers fight, all people are injured.
The novel is clearly of its time and is a warning to the societies that built those early weapons. There is hopeless finality that pervades every page and every incident recounted. And yet, the human spirit pushes against that hopelessness, as people preserve and store what they can for a future that they cannot envision. But there is no real hope in the end of the book and no escape possible.
Having seen enough good movies and read enough Science Fiction, I kept thinking, “Why aren’t you building underground caverns to live in until the cloud passes?” The book states that in 15-20 years, the cloud would have dissipated enough to come back out. Perhaps that is where Mad Max picks up the story line. It is Australia, you know.
It is impossible to read a story of impending doom and not be captured by the thought that each one of us is in this position every single day. Our lives are like a mist, just a moment away from dissipating to nothing. We must all face our frailty and realize that, quite apart from Nuclear War, we have our fate in our hands and can decide how the remaining hours will be spent. We should plan on and prepare for the Eternity that comes after.