Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach is one of those novels which is not often mentioned these days, but when it is mentioned, it is with solid regard—a book that potentially transcends its time. Other such novels are John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s Death of Grass, Michael Coney’s Hello Summer, Goodbye, and Olaf Stapledon’s The Starmaker. That short list covering the spectrum of speculative fiction, greatest to cheesiest, “solid regard” of books like On the Beach needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s see how much of the grainy white stuff is needed for Shute’s book.
Like George Stewart’s Earth Abides, On the Beach is pastoral post-apocalypse. Set in the aftermath of WWIII, the majority of the world has been wiped out by nuclear war. The story takes place in southern Australia, a place not yet touched by nuclear fallout, and is centered around the lives of four people. The first is the American, Captain Dwight Towers. Piloting the submarine USS Scorpion when the bombs started falling, he now works de facto for the Australian government as there is no US to go home to. Peter Holmes is an Australian officer who has been assigned as liaison aboard the Scorpion, together with another Austrialian, the science officer John Osbourne. And lastly is Moira Davidson, friend of Holmes and young woman at ends what to do with her life. These four people try to rationalize their existence and live normal lives despite the damage they know has been done to the world. Each proves to have their own manner of dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional adversity, but is it enough?