A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: On The Beach

My midnight readings have taken a dark turn for the past few weeks. Books about the apocalypse and social upheaval intrigue me. This past weekend, I finished another, Nevil Shute's On The Beach, written in 1957. Call this a kinder and gentler version of the end.

Nuclear war incinerates the combatants, and most of the world. North America is decimated. Europe is a memory. Asia is no more. A few outposts of civilization remain, in South America and in Australia. Yet no one is immune from radiation sickness. It will be a long, long time before the Earth recovers from war. Australia monitors the advance of radiation on the air currents, counting down to an estimated date of arrival, and certain death.

An American submariner surfaces and submits to the command of the Australian government. He is stationed at Melbourne, where he makes the acquaintance of a British Naval Officer, the officer's wife, and a woman who struggles against despair.

Although the end draws ever closer, Shute's characters never lose hope. The submariner remains faithful to his family killed in Connecticut, shopping for presents for them and planning a reunion in September, when he heads home. (That is when radiation poisoning expects to make Australia uninhabitable.) His decency redeems the despondent woman, and the two form a liaison that exists in uneasy equipoise with his commitment to the memory of his wife and children. Another couple in the book gives birth to an infant, and plans endlessly for a garden that will never grow. A farmer worries what will become of his cattle.

This book celebrates ordinary decency. The end draws neigh, and yet shopkeepers continue to charge reasonable prices for their wares. Order is kept not so much through the dead weight of force, but through an internal sense of decency. This is not Thomas Hobbes state of nature.

Shute writes of a different world. It is hard to imagine a peace of contemporary fiction envisioning the end of the world as we know it without graphic violence and the thrill of immanent destruction.

This book may not resonate with those who did not spend time on their hands and knees crawling beneath their desks in air raid drills in the era of the Cuban missile crisis. I recall the drills well. We were told to turn away from the windows as we hovered beneath our desks. Just why always amazed me. Did they really expect to survive the blast and fireball we expected to come?

Visions of the apocalypse are different now. We worry less about nuclear war, although last week's summit suggests we might be fooling ourselves by dismissing the possibility. Today we worry more about ecological disaster. It is almost as though we cannot help but conceive an end to history. Trapped, as we are, in a world bounded by space and time, I suspect there is something about the simple narrative rhythm of beginning, middle and end that compels a consideration of the last act. Shute's characters face their end with a dignity and grace that reveals civilization is really not about the bricks and mortar that provide the physical metes and bounds of our lives. Civilization springs from within, and it is within us to cherish the graceful deed even when all else fails.

The end does come in On the Beach. There is no escaping it. Yet each character lingers on in the hope that the future beckons. And when the night falls, it is greeted with honor and a sense that duty extends beyond the reach of an individual's life: duty transcends. Perhaps Nevil Shute is an apocalyptic Kantian. I recommend the work as a classic in the genre, and as a book filled with characters worth loving.

Comments: (6)

  • This is probably my favorite book, but no one seem...
    This is probably my favorite book, but no one seems to know about it. I actually enjoy Nevil Shute in general--if you haven't already read some of his other books, I would suggest "A Town Like Alice" next.
    Posted on April 19, 2010 at 3:13 am by Meryl
  • Meryl
    Thanks, Meryl. I appreciate the referral. ...
    Thanks, Meryl. I appreciate the referral. I will check out Shute now.
    I started a Canticle for Leibowitz.
    Posted on April 19, 2010 at 3:18 am by Norm Pattis
  • Another great book (and film) from the Cold War Er...
    Another great book (and film) from the Cold War Era is Fail Safe.
    Posted on April 19, 2010 at 9:26 am by Ray Sipsa
  • "Did they really expect to survive the blast and f...
    "Did they really expect to survive the blast and fireball we expected to come?"
    Basically, yes. Of course, no one can survive being really close to a nuclear blast, but as you get further away from ground zero, the blast and flash damage decrease until you're in the safe zone. If you're in the area that is neither total destruction nor total safety, your behavior can make a difference.
    It's like teaching people to hide under tables in earthquakes or in interior rooms during tornadoes. Neither of those will save you if the building is destroyed, but it might save you from a head injury from flying or falling debris.
    (Naturally, there was probably also some propaganda value to keeping the threat of nuclear war in people's minds with repeated civil defense drills.)
    In the early years of the cold war, the bombs would have been comparatively small A-bombs, and they would have been delivered in small numbers by Soviet bombers striking our military bases. Later, when the Soviets had the capability and will to hit our cities with multiple 20-megaton warheads, we stopped teaching children to duck and cover.
    Posted on April 20, 2010 at 1:37 am by Windypundit
  • W:
    Well I was well-prepared for survival. I think...
    Well I was well-prepared for survival. I think the school was the LeMoyne Elementary School up near Wrigley Field in your fair city.
    Posted on April 20, 2010 at 2:54 am by Norm Pattis
  • I don't know if you would have been safe, but it s...
    I don't know if you would have been safe, but it sure would have been interesting. In the 50s and 60s Chicago was defended against nuclear attack by Nike missile batteries capable of launching nuclear warheads at enemy bombers coming in over the lakes.
    Posted on April 20, 2010 at 8:25 am by Windypundit

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