“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine…”
That line from the old REM song pretty much sums up Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach.” The world has ended and everyone’s pretty much OK with it.
Written in the late 50’s and set in the near future of the early 60’s, “On the Beach” finds World War III has come and gone. The final battle was set off by a misunderstanding with the bigger nuclear powers shooting first and asking questions later. The result is the northern hemisphere is gone, nuked to oblivion and the southern hemisphere is waiting for the radiation to slowly spread across the entire planet and kills the survivors.
It’s these survivors that we meet in Australia. And they’re all taking it pretty well. There’s no chaos here. Everything is running fairly normally, except for the fact that we’re all going to die in about six months. And not a pretty death, but a slow, painful one.
The big problem with this book is the quiet acceptance every character has of this. Yes, there are some characters deep in denial and some are planning for a world beyond six months from now, but never is there any sense of panic or desparation by anyone. The most panicked we get is they move up an auto race a few months becuase the time it’s scheduled to take place will be after the radiation hits.
There are some moments of hope in the story that someone might be alive in the northern hemisphere or that the coming end might not come. But these are quickly dashed and then everyone accepts it with quiet resignation.
I’m sure when it was written, this book was strangely scary and virtually prophetic. But reading it now, it’s a story that seems dated, with characters who fail to spark much interest for the reader. I haven’t read a book since “Lucifer’s Hammer” where I actively rooted for the apocolyptic event to happen already just to kill off some of the characters in the story and maybe get things moving. And that’s the biggest flaw in “On the Beach”–nothing happens. We don’t get to see the end of the world and nothing seems to make any impact on the characters. It’s a hard book to read, not because of the subject matter but because virtually nothing happens and none of the characters are interesting enough to make the investment of time worth it in the end.