Amy Sturgis's Reviews > On the Beach

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
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it was ok
bookshelves: postapocalyptic-dystopia, science-fiction-vintage, 20th-century

It's appropriate that I should review this novel on the 65th anniversary of the successful test of the first atom bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. On the Beach is set in what was the near future to British-Australian author Nevil Shute, writing in 1957: 1963, approximately a year after World War III. The northern hemisphere has been devastated by nuclear war, and those in the southern hemisphere wait for the nuclear fallout to reach them. The story follows the lives of several Australians and one American in Melbourne, Australia, which is destined to be the last major city left alive on the planet before its inhabitants, too, die of radiation poisoning.

What the novel does, it does extremely well. It draws the reader into the lives of these individuals as they live out their final months, weeks, days, and hours, and in so doing it brings the tragic waste of their deaths into high relief. The slow, inexorable march of the fallout, and the way the characters deal (or refuse to deal) with it is played out soberly, and with restraint. This is not the story of heroic leaders fighting until their final breaths, or last-minute attempts to save humanity; it's the story of husbands and wives and sons and daughters and widowers and would-be lovers who are powerless to stop the inevitable, and so accept it as best they can. As a "What if?" scenario, and an overt warning, the novel is very effective.

I was, however, expecting a wider range of reactions, from religious reawakenings to last-minute scientific schemes. As the last surviving city, Melbourne didn't seem to be messy enough - socially, politically, religiously, literally - by the end. The characters behaved in surprisingly similar ways, and the world continued on with a coziness that sometimes felt contrived. Many of the most fascinating aspects of the post-apocalyptic scenario were only vaguely mentioned in passing, and I would've loved to see more of these ideas examined and explored. But perhaps Shute's narrow focus makes his point: in the end, with so much warning and so few ways to combat what is coming, people ultimately will just carry on, quietly accept, and then die.

As a book on the aftermath of nuclear war, it does not rival some of its contemporaries, notably the grand vision of Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and the haunting power of Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959), both of which I think are better novels. That said, I appreciate On the Beach's place in history, and I'm glad I read this quiet, understated, and sensitive work.
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Reading Progress

July 12, 2010 – Started Reading
July 12, 2010 – Shelved
July 12, 2010 – Shelved as: postapocalyptic-dystopia
Finished Reading
July 16, 2010 – Shelved as: science-fiction-vintage
September 26, 2010 – Shelved as: 20th-century

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by James M. (new)

James M. Madsen, M.D. I'm glad that you mentioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is one of my favorites! And BTW, how did you manage to place the title in italics at Goodreads?

message 2: by Amy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amy Sturgis Thanks for your comment! Canticle is one of my favorites, too.

As for italics, I just used regular old html coding, with the "i" in between < and >.

message 3: by James M. (new)

James M. Madsen, M.D. Thanks, Amy!

message 4: by Pontus (new)

Pontus Liljeblad I found the narrow and understated wistful resignation in the face of the final ending of everything utterly beautiful and quite believable. Who to rage against in the certain knowledge of a self-created future containing nothing you knew or loved or hoped for?

message 5: by Amy (last edited Jul 21, 2010 04:42PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amy Sturgis I agree with you that what was there was beautiful. I really struggled whether to give this three stars or four (and I may still change my mind). I suppose I just found it difficult to believe there would be such uniformity in reaction. I think perhaps I was spoiled by reading recently Philip Wylie's The Disappearance, written during and about the same period, which pictured worldwide reaction to an apocalyptic scenario in many vivid and poignant colors and textures (everything from religious fanaticism and violent mayhem to philosophical reflection and stubborn Stoicism). Even John Wyndham's so-called "cozy catastrophes" weren't quite so cozy as Shute's! That said, I did really enjoy the novel, especially the relationship between Dwight and Moira.

Karen Downes I think it has to be read while conscious of the time it was written - 1950's Melbourne was a lot less reliant on the rest of the world (there would have still been market gardens in the outer suburbs at that time). There was also a lot less knowledge at that time about how something like this would happen and no decades of speculation about how people would react.
Australia is an isolated island nation, a long way from Europe and North America, and Australians have a cultural tendency towards laconic acceptance of unchangeable facts (drought, floods, cyclones...)
I thought Neville Shute's ideas about how we would react to be refreshing and a change from most apocalyptic / dystopian fiction.

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