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First edition cover
|Cover artist||John Rowland|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
First edition cover
|Cover artist||John Rowland|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
On the Beach is a 1957 post-apocalyptic novel written by British-Australian author Nevil Shute after he emigrated to Australia. The novel details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Melbourne as they await the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere following a nuclear war a year previously. As the radiation approaches each person deals with their impending death in different ways.
Shute's initial story appeared as a four-part series The Last Days on Earth in the London weekly periodical Sunday Graphic in April 1957. For the novel Shute expanded on the storyline. The story has been filmed twice (in 1959 and 2000) and as a BBC radio broadcast in 2008.
In this last of meeting places
We group together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.
Printings of the novel, including the first 1957 edition by William Morrow and Company, NY, contain extracts from the poem on the title page, under Nevil Shute's name, including the above quotation and the concluding lines:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
The 2000 film ends with a quote from a Walt Whitman poem entitled "On The Beach at Night", describing how frightening an approaching cloud bank seemed at night to the poet's child, blotting the stars out one by one, as the father and child stood on the beach on Massachusetts' North Shore. As much as it resembles the plot of Shute's novel, the book gives no reference to the Whitman poem, while the T.S. Eliot poem is presented in the book's front matter.
The story is set primarily in and around Melbourne, Australia, in 1963. World War III has devastated most of the populated world, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all human and animal life in the Northern Hemisphere. The war began with a nuclear attack by Albania on Italy and then escalated with the bombing of the United States and the United Kingdom by Egypt. Because the aircraft used in these attacks were obtained from the Soviet Union, the Soviets were mistakenly blamed, triggering a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union by NATO. There is also an attack by the Soviets on the People's Republic of China, which may have been a response to a Chinese attack aimed at occupying Soviet industrial areas near the Chinese border. Most if not all of the bombs used cobalt that was included to enhance their radioactive properties.
Global air currents are slowly carrying the lethal nuclear fallout across the Intertropical Convergence Zone to the southern hemisphere. The only parts of the planet still habitable are Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and the southern parts of South America, although these areas are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning as well. Life in Melbourne continues in a reasonably normal fashion, though the near-complete lack of motor fuels makes travel difficult.
People in Australia detect a mysterious and incomprehensible Morse code radio signal originating from the American city of Seattle, Washington. With hope that someone has survived in the contaminated regions, one of the last American nuclear submarines, USS Scorpion, placed by its captain, Commander Dwight Towers, under Australian naval command, is ordered to sail north from its port of refuge in Melbourne (Australia's southernmost major mainland city) to contact whoever is sending the signal. In preparation for this journey, the submarine makes a shorter trip to port cities in northern Australia, including Cairns, Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory, but finds no survivors. Two Australians sail with the American crew: Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, naval liaison officer to the Americans, and a scientist, Professor John Osborne. Commander Towers has become attached to a young Australian woman distantly related to Osborne named Moira Davidson, who tries to cope with the impending end of human life through heavy drinking. Despite his attraction to Davidson, Towers remains loyal to his wife and children in the United States. He buys his children gifts and imagines their growing older. At one point, however, he makes it clear to Moira that he knows his family is almost certainly dead, and he asks her if she thinks he is insane for acting as if they were still alive. She replies that she does not think he is crazy.
The Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so that they can avoid prolonged suffering from radiation poisoning. Periodic reports show the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation. As communications are lost with a city it is referred to as being "out." One of the novel's poignant dilemmas is that of Peter Holmes, who has a baby daughter and a naive and childish wife, Mary, who is in denial about the impending disaster. Because he has been assigned to travel north with the Americans, Peter tries to explain, to Mary's fury and disbelief, how to kill their baby and herself take the suicide pill should he not return from his mission in time to help. The bachelor Osborne spends much of his time restoring a Ferrari racing car which he had purchased (along with a fuel supply) for a nominal amount following the outbreak of the war.
The submarine travels to the Gulf of Alaska in the northern Pacific Ocean, where the crew determines that radiation levels are not decreasing. This finding discredits the "Jorgensen Effect," a scientific theory positing that radiation levels will gradually decrease due to weather effects and potentially allow for human life to continue in southern Australia or at least Antarctica. The submarine approaches San Francisco, observing through the periscope that the city had been devastated and the Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. In contrast, the Puget Sound area, from which the strange radio signals come, is found to have avoided destruction due to missile defences. One crew member, who is from Edmonds, Washington, which the expedition visits, jumps ship to spend his last days in his home town. The expedition members then sail to an abandoned Navy communications school south of Seattle. A crewman sent ashore with oxygen tanks and protective gear discovers that, although the city's residents have long since perished, some of the region's hydroelectric power is still working due to primitive automation technology. He finds that the mysterious radio signal is the result of a broken window sash swinging in the breeze and occasionally hitting a telegraph key. After a brief stop at Pearl Harbor, the remaining submariners return to Australia to live out what little time they have left.
Osborne takes his suicide pill while sitting in his beloved racing car. When Mary Holmes becomes very ill, Peter administers a lethal injection to their daughter. Even though he still feels relatively well, he and Mary take their pills simultaneously so they can die as a family. Commander Towers and his remaining crew choose to scuttle the Scorpion in the open ocean, fulfilling a naval duty to not leave the unmanned vessel "floating about in a foreign port" after her crew succumbs to suicide or radiation poisoning. Moira watches the departure of the submarine in her car from an adjacent hilltop as she takes her suicide pill, imagining herself together with Towers as she dies.
The characters make their best efforts to enjoy what time remains to them, speaking of small pleasures and continuing their customary activities. The Holmeses plant a garden that they will never see; Moira takes classes in typing and shorthand; Osborne and others organize a dangerous motor race that results in the violent deaths of several participants; elderly members of a "gentlemen's club" drink up the wine in the club's cellar, debate over whether to move the fishing season up, and fret about whether agriculturally-destructive rabbits will survive human beings. Towers goes on a fishing trip with Davidson but they do not become sexually involved, as he wants to remain loyal to his wife, a decision Moira accepts. Government services and the economy gradually grind to a halt. In the end, Towers chooses not to remain and die with Moira but rather to lead his crew on a final mission to scuttle the submarine outside Australian territorial waters. He refuses to allow his imminent demise to turn him aside from his duty to the U.S. Navy and he acts as a pillar of strength to his crew.
Typically for a Shute novel, the characters avoid expressing intense emotions and do not mope or indulge in self-pity. The Australians do not, for the most part, flee southward as refugees but rather accept their fate once the lethal radiation levels reach the latitudes at which they live; most of them opt for the government-promoted alternative of suicide when the symptoms of radiation sickness appear. In any case, as is made clear within the text, radiation poisoning is also starting to appear as far south as Christchurch in New Zealand, so that any such flight would have been pointless.
The New York Times called On the Beach "the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war." Galaxy Science Fiction called the book "an emotional wallop. It should be made mandatory reading for all professional diplomats and politicians". San Francisco Chronicle reviewer called it "the most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off." Daily Telegraph calls it "Shute's most considerable achievement" and The Times states that it is "the most evocative novel on the aftermath of a nuclear war." The Guardian comments that "fictions such as On the Beach played an important role in raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink." Los Angeles Times describes the novel as "timely and ironic...an indelibly sad ending that leaves you tearful and disturbed" and The Economist calls it "still incredibly moving after nearly half a century."
The American government voiced a criticism of the general premise of the novel, that there was a threat of extinction from nuclear war, because they did not, nor have they ever, had enough nuclear weapons to cause human extinction.
The novel was adapted for the screenplay of a 1959 film featuring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire, and a 2000 television film starring Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown. BBC Radio 4 broadcast a full-cast audio dramatization in two hour-long episodes as part of their Classic Serial strand in November 2008.