A war no one fully understands has devastated the planet with radioactive fallout from massive cobalt bombing. Melbourne, Australia, is the only area whose citizens have not yet succumbed to the contamination. But there isn’t much time left, a few months, maybe more—and the citizens of Melbourne must decide how they will live the remaining weeks of their lives, and how they will face a hopeless future. Published in 1957, On the Beach is considered a classic nuclear holocaust novel, and a masterpiece of speculative fiction.
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This book profoundly influenced much of my life. I first read it while in high school and then again some time later. Now, after a lifetime, I listened to the audiobook. What struck me most from this most recent experience with the novel is the complete decency and sense of duty its characters displayed as they waited for a deadly inevitable cloud of radiation from nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere to reach them in southern Australia. They clung to, or discovered, what meant most to them in their lives and continued to carry on in the face of the certain destruction of the human species. Contemporary readers may find their behavior implausible, but having grown up in the post WW II era, I see this as congruent with the values and character of that period.
I was in college at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and vividly remember the sense of urgency I felt after President Kennedy’s now-famous speech where everything--my future and that of the entire world--was on the line. Afterwards I soberly rode the elevator up to my room from the dorm lounge where so many girls had watched and listened to grave and frightening announcements. Many of my companions were openly crying and beginning to despair. One of them turned to me and asked with great urgency, “What are you going to do?” I answered that I was going to study for the Sociology exam I was scheduled to take in the morning. She looked at me incredulously and exclaimed, “But we may be at war tomorrow!! We may all be dead!” I thought about her question and replied, “But we may NOT be at war, and if we are not, I will certainly have to take that exam. I can’t change anything out there, but I CAN continue with what I am here to do. I can be prepared for that test.”
In retrospect, we all know what happened: there was no war, I took that exam, and I did pretty well on it. I learned from On the Beach, and from that Missile Crisis experience, that I needed to do my job, whatever that might be, and to do it to the best of my ability for the rest of my life regardless of what whirlwinds of craziness were swirling about me. The characters in this book knew they were going to die, and they knew when--a truly terrifying concept. Yet, as the book points out, we all know that that our condition is terminal. Our time here is finite; we each need to make ours the best, most productive, life we can, for ourselves and for those around us. There is so much that we cannot control, but we can govern ourselves. We can be true to our values as so many of Shute’s people were in this novel.
Because I had grown up with air raid drills, “duck and cover,” under a constant threat of nuclear annihilation, this book spoke directly to me. It frightened me tremendously, but it also taught me some very important lessons that have remained an integral part of everything I have done since. Each day of life dawned with a strong sense of urgency, causing me to grasp exciting experiences and opportunities as they offered themselves. I never felt the luxury of letting them pass by perhaps for another time.
Over these many years, I have experienced much change, both loss and gain. Some events and situations I could influence, while others I was utterly impotent to affect. I learned from this book, and from life, to direct most of my energy and efforts into those spheres where I could actually have impact, and to let the rest go by. For me this is the major lesson of On the Beach.
The novel certainly may have also influenced those with the power to change global politics, leading them to actions which effectively avoided nuclear war and total annihilation of life as we know it on earth. That is unknowable. I only understand that, unlike the characters in On the Beach, I was granted a full life--basically a wonderful and somewhat unexpected gift.
The most emotionally moving story I have ever read
If you could sum up On the Beach in three words, what would they be?
Inevitability Futility Acceptance
What did you like best about this story?
"On The Beach" is the ultimate description of what we all feared during the 50s and 60s...atomic war. Simon Prebble seems to me to be the perfect choice to have narrated this story. His method perfectly matched the tone of the story in every way. Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon". It is a similar story with a different outcome.
Which scene was your favorite?
Even though the world was mostly dead, there was still a radio signal from Seattle. The discovery of its source was quite novel.
Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
I have to say that the last few paragraphs of the book are gut-wrenchingly realistic...the ultimate Good-Bye as you watch a loved one leave forever... Scenes, plural. Many. If the last three chapters do not bring tears to your eyes many times, well, you're not human. (sorry)
Any additional comments?
There is no flowery writing in this book. Mr. Shute wrote it pretty much the way a military report is worded. Yet, the detail he gives to the characters and their dialog fills the story with beauty and purpose. Masterfully.