11 July 2010

Review: On the Beach

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Last week I reviewed the post-apocalyptic horror novel I am Legend. As it so happens, I am Legend was a rather short book, and I finished it only partway through a rather long weekend of traveling to and from a wedding in Wyoming. I was already in a post-apocalyptic mood, so I bought a copy of the classic post-apocalypse novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute for my Kindle.

On the Beach was a very different sort of novel from I am Legend. Where I am Legend is lots of action, On the Beach is a quieter story about people facing the inevitable. The premise for the story is that World War III has happened, and the many nations in the northern hemisphere have destroyed each other with nuclear weapons, particularly with Cobalt bombs designed to produce incredible amounts of fallout. Now, nearly a year later, the northern hemisphere is dead  and the fallout is drifting south with atmospheric circulation. The novel is set in and around Melbourne Australia, the southernmost large city in the world, and therefore the last to die.

Shute does a really nice job developing a handful of sympathetic characters, each of whom deals with the coming end in their own way. I was also impressed with how plausible the war in the northern hemisphere sounded. The end of the novel is no surprise, but it was still a tearjerker to read. I suppose my only complaint was that the characters all seemed to accept their end pretty gracefully. I think it’s true that some people would, but I am sure others would be frantically building fallout shelters and hoarding supplies, even in the face of certain creeping death from the radiation.

The scariest thing about this novel is that the only thing about it that is science fictional is that the cobalt bombs were actually built and used. The idea was there, and the nuclear arsenals of the US and the USSR were certainly large enough that the type of destruction described would be plausible if some of the bombs were cobalt bombs.

I should note that this novel, which was written in 1957, shows its age. It’s not a bad thing, for the most part, but it just “feels” like it’s from that era. Gender roles are the most obvious sign of the times. One of the main characters is a very independent (read: drunk) young woman who gradually shapes up and begins to take stenography classes. Men do most of the more active, interesting stuff in the novel. It was also annoying that the wife of one of the main characters was so ignorant. It served a purpose in the novel of course, because by explaining to her, the author was able to explain to the reader, but it still grated a bit.

Somehow, despite its very sad and grim ending, this novel manages to still not be as dark as I am Legend was. A constant theme throughout the story is how people come with the inevitable by pretending that it isn’t happening, and how really, maybe that’s ok. They continue to go about their lives. Society doesn’t devolve into violence the way that many post-apocalyptic stories depict. In a way, that was refreshing.

So, if you want an original, classic and touching look at the end of the world, I recommend On the Beach.