The next world war – starting with hostilities in Albania and Egypt, spreading to the United States, England and France, then to the Soviet Union and China – was over in a matter of hours. The Northern Hemisphere is uninhabited, blanketed by a cloud of nuclear radiation which is slowly but inexorably drifting south. Life goes on in the cities far below of the equator, as radio communication with points north slowly go silent. One transmitter in Seattle is still sending garbled messages. Could there be survivors? Could there still be hope?
This is the premise of Nevil Shute’s speculative novel, On the Beach, which placed #8 on the fiction bestseller list in 1957. Set in Melbourne, Australia, Shute’s characters display varying responses to the knowledge that their lives will likely end in a matter of months. How will they spend the time they have left?
American nuclear submarine captain Commander Dwight Towers and Australian Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes set off on a military mission to Seattle. Towers’ family is surely dead, but on shore leave he buys presents for his return home. Holmes and his wife, Mary, who have a small child, diligently plant a garden which will mature only in seasons which may never come. Yet, before he leaves, Peter explains to Mary how to use the red boxes from the pharmacy if the end is near. The Holmes’ friend, Moira Davidson, initially parties day and night, and then sobers up and starts secretarial school. Shute’s characters respond to the apocalypse of their world in interesting and plausible ways. And time is running out.
On the Beach has been continuously in print since 1957. While his characters sometimes tend to stereotypes, Shute’s military background and imaginative attention to detail make the novel a vivid, cautionary tale. It’s still a good read.
Image Credit: William Morrow & Co., Inc.