By Nevil Shute
On The Beach, published in 1957, is by far the most relaxed post-apocalyptic book I’ve ever read. The basic premise is that large-scale nuclear warfare broke out in the northern hemisphere, apparently destroying all civilization. Because of something about wind patterns that I have no frame of reference for, the blasts and radiation have not hit the southern hemisphere, though they are expected to slowly come over with the changing of the seasons.
Our two main protagonists are an Australian naval officer and an American submarine commander who was undersea during the war. The two of them, and about a dozen other military personnel and neighbors and such, all get along very well, hosting small dinner parties and beach outings, while the Australian navy sort of desultorily sets up an exploratory mission to search for survivors or intact land or such.
One of my (many) pet peeves with police and military dramas is how angry and confrontational all of these supposed professionals get with each other. On The Beach continually shocked me with how each introduced character — the Australian naval officer, the American commander, the civilian engineer, and even the Australian Prime Minister — seemed to enjoy meeting the others and working with them in what should have been an extremely emotionally fraught situation.
The first submarine expedition lasted a week and only one page; I actually had to go back and reread it since I thought maybe I’d missed a part. Truly, the only suspense came from me as a reader not quite believing that there wasn’t going to turn out to be some horribly twisted character or other manufactured drama-for-the-sake-of-drama. I think some readers might struggle with this because nothing much seems to happen, but I somehow found it so reflective of the little things one would fill one’s life with at the end, that is was soothing to read. (To add a caveat to this, after I finished the book, I read some other reviews, in which people did not find it quite so soothing, and described the calmness as frustrating and terrifying, so take that into consideration, I guess.)
I highly recommend it, even if just for the extremely novel experience of reading about a bunch of adults dealing with an unpleasant situation in as mature a way as possible. Seriously, when is the last time you’ve read a book where you liked and understood the motivations of every single one of the characters? Where there isn’t a single ‘villain’ in the piece? One of the women is a little thinly written, but compared to other female characters in 50s and 60s scifi novels, she is still quite a strong character. The other central woman was particularly well done, starting from pretty much a spoiled brat to becoming sort of the heroine of the story, though, again, ‘heroine’ is perhaps too active a word for it.
The book starts with the line from T. S. Elliot, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” and I can’t think of a better overall description for this book than that, quite frankly.