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On the Beach, Nevil Shute, Ballantine, 1980, 278 pp. (originally published in 1957)

On the Beach is a surreal journey into the darkness of the Nuclear Age. Our age. The book infuriates the reader with its insistence on the mundane, the almost hallucinatory day-to-day tedium of living with the end of the human race. Would the countries of 1963 (the time period the novel is set in) really have nuked the hell out of each other for no sane reason? Shute the prophet and Shute the writer of thrillers co-exist uneasily, and the result is both close to reality (Cuban Missile Crisis anyone? India-Pakistan?) and the purest stuff of nightmares. On the Beach has no particular level of suspense, no thrills, and only one, inevitable way to close. The reader rebels, wants out of the trap, but Shute is relentless. Palpable despair makes the book unforgettable, if only in what it says about us as a race. The small accommodations and rationalizations all go on, the same that brought us to Shute's beach, and the same that let us meekly wave goodbye.

On the Beach tells a simple story. Some kind of complicated mix-up happened, and nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere. Who is to blame? The explanations would be hilarious in their complexity, if not for the implied question: who is not to blame? The people of Australia wait the 7 or 8 months for the radioactivity to drift southwards. Then everyone dies. Their dogs die. Their infants die. Either messy deaths due to radioactive poisoning, or swift deaths due to cyanide pills. Radiation approaches, they die, the end.

A small group of people occupy our attention as human civilization winds to a close. Peter and Mary Holmes have a young child, and Peter works for the Australian Navy. They are friends with Moira Davidson, a young woman who seems bent on drinking herself into oblivion. An American submarine pulls into the nearest port, captained by Dwight Towers. Peter is asked to go on an exploratory cruise with the Americans, along with the other main character, John Osborne, a scientist. Their cruise is a series of hopes raised and crushed, but the men have already understood that. Mary is deeply delusional, and seems to be portrayed as childish or even stupid. Moira falls in love with Dwight, except that Dwight still has a fixation on his family. Who lived just outside a navy yard on the American East Coast, which would have been one of the first targets. Osborne is an interesting character who starts to live for the first time in the shadow of the end.

However powerful, On the Beach is not perfect. There is a deep vein of sexism that runs through the book. Peter is clearly one of the main characters and a lens that Shute uses to examine the coming of the end. So what is the reader supposed to make of the following thoughts of Peter's: "These bloody women, sheltered from realities, living in a sentimental dream world of their own! If they'd face up to things they could help a man, help him enormously. While they clung to the dream world they were just a bloody millstone round his neck" (141). Even in the context of character development, this is frightening, especially since I'm not convinced that Shute is making this satirical (Shute has little in the way of authorial intrusions, which is why I mentioned Peter's overall role in the book). And I am uneasy about Dwight's refusal to see that Connecticut and his family have been destroyed. Survivor's guilt, of course, and a coping mechanism that lets him, the active male, go out and confront the nasty world. But it's the same refusal to recognize the consequences that brought on the war. In a smaller peeve, I was disturbed that Shute seemed to be blaming the nuclear war on the irresponsible little nations. And the big nations have acted responsibly?

On the Beach is a contemporary of Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz, another classic of nuclear dread. But the two diverge quite drastically in their approaches, each as devastating by implication. Shute shows us the final end of humanity, while Miller shows us the cycle of destruction that may be inherent in all of us. I did note one point of similarity, where Shute's main characters are talking about the project to preserve knowledge: "The girl turned to Peter curiously. 'What sort of books are they preserving? All about how to make the cobalt bomb?'" (105). Moira makes it a joke, which only reinforces the point. The link between knowledge and destruction is clearly present (as Miller pointed out), just as much as the reality of Shute's book, in its time, was a bit of knowledge built up against destruction. A nice way to combat the problem on its own playing field.


Also see the review of the movie based on this book.


Last modified: September 21, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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