“On The Beach”
by Nevil Shute
“Nevil Shute’s 1959 novel “On the Beach” is set in what was then the near future (1963, approximately a year following World War III). The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all animal life. While the nuclear bombs were confined to the northern hemisphere, global air currents are slowly carrying the fallout to the southern hemisphere. The only part of the planet still habitable is the far south of the globe, specifically Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and the southern parts of South America.
From Australia, survivors detect a mysterious and incomprehensible Morse code radio signal originating from the United States. With hope that some life has remained in the contaminated regions, one of the last American nuclear submarines, the USS Scorpion, placed by its captain under Australian naval command, is ordered to sail north from its port of refuge in Melbourne (Australia’s southernmost major mainland city) to try to contact whoever is sending the signal. In preparation for this long journey the submarine first makes a shorter trip to some port cities in northern Australia including Cairns, Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory, finding no survivors.
The Australian government makes arrangements to provide its citizens with free suicide pills and injections, so that they will be able to avoid prolonged suffering from radiation sickness. One of the novel’s poignant dilemmas is that of Australian naval officer 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 must try to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and kill herself with the pill should he be killed on the ocean voyage.
The characters make their best efforts to enjoy what time and pleasures remain to them before dying from radiation poisoning, speaking of small pleasures and continuing their customary activities, allowing their awareness of the coming end to impinge on their minds only long enough to plan ahead for their final hours. The Holmeses plant a garden that they will never see; Moira takes classes in typing and shorthand; scientist John Osborne and others organize a dangerous motor race that results in the violent deaths of several participants. In the end, Captain Towers chooses not to remain with Moira but rather to lead his crew on a final mission to scuttle their submarine beyond the twelve-mile (22 km) limit, so that she will not rattle about, unsecured, in a foreign port, refusing to allow his coming demise to turn him aside from his duty and acting as a pillar of strength to his crew.
Typically for a Shute novel, the characters avoid the expression of intense emotions and do not mope or indulge in self-pity. They 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. Finally, most of the Australians do opt for the government-promoted alternative of suicide when the symptoms of radiation-sickness appear.”
Freely download “On the Beach”, by Nevil Shute, here: