I first read On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world novel, as a freshman in high school. I’d already seen the movie, starring Gregory Peck as the U.S. submarine captain and Ava Gardner as the woman who falls in love with him, so the book seemed, well, anticlimactic. By 1968, after the Cuban missile crisis and years of air-raid drills, the possibility of nuclear annihilation was part of our psyche. You just lived with it.
Shute, a successful aeronautical engineer and prolific writer who emigrated from England to Australia after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II, published On the Beach in 1957. It was not the first but was certainly the most popular work of fiction to warn of nuclear holocaust. Other novels and films quickly followed. From A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Fail-Safe (1962) to Dr. Strangelove (1964), artists used speculative drama and satire to address a fear that was all too real.
In Shute’s version of the end, the Northern Hemisphere has destroyed itself after “the Irresponsibles”—small nations with a handful of nuclear bombs—draw the nuclear superpowers into a third world war. Now the winds are gradually carrying cobalt radiation to the south, and the main characters, who live in Melbourne, Australia, face imminent death.
The way Shute’s characters behave as they wait for the end seemed improbable to my freshman mind. Sure, some overindulge with alcohol, but most either live in a state of conscious denial, pretending the end isn’t coming in order to preserve life’s routines, or they fearlessly attempt what they had only dreamed of doing before.
“If what they say is right, we’re none of us going to have time to do all that we planned to do,” says the plucky heroine to another woman. “But we can keep on doing it as long as we can.”
For the six months remaining to them, people go about their jobs, plant gardens for the following year, and take courses to improve their career prospects. When the end does come, most retire to their beds and swallow a little white pill dispensed by a well-prepared government.
Compare that scenario with Cormac McCarthy’s savage end in The Road (2006). There, an unexplained event has launched the planet into nuclear winter. The few survivors must grub for food and defend themselves from robbers and cannibals even as they escape the encroaching cold, gradually sicken from radiation poisoning and die.
When mankind’s end comes, I suspect McCarthy’s is the more likely scenario. Nevertheless, Shute, despite serving in both world wars, maintained a great faith in ordinary human decency, even in situations of extreme stress. In A Town Like Alice, his characters survive a torturous wartime captivity in Malaya by protecting and caring for one another. In Pastoral, his RAF pilots and WAAFs put their duties and comrades before their personal lives. In Shute’s world, decency is the outer projection of human dignity, and kindness is at the core of his own brand of existentialism.
I had dismissed On the Beach as a time capsule that lost its vigor with the end of the Cold War. Yet, when I reread it recently, I came away with a new appreciation. How might the world end? I asked myself. There seem more ways now than ever. How would people behave? More to the point, how would I behave if I knew I had only six months to live?… And then it struck me—the book has a metaphorical significance I’d overlooked as a high-school freshman. For who isn’t facing the end?
“On the beach,” it turns out, is not only an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” but Royal Navy slang for retirement from the service. This year I have the good fortune to turn sixty. Like other baby-boomers I am heading (slowly, I hope) toward my own time on the beach. I’ve seen friends before me deal with this eventuality in different ways. Some have remained in denial (60 is the new 40!). Others have made breathless lists of places to go and things to do (seize the day!). A few have already confronted the approaching drift of death.
Hmm, now where have I seen such behaviors described before?
The big question lying within Shute’s book remains as pertinent as ever. When our time comes, as it must, will we face our demise with the bravery, civility and consideration that his characters do? I hope so; it sure beats cannibals.