On The Beach Nevil Shute, 1957
Remember when nuclear fallout felt like a very real and pressing danger? Stephen Baxter looks back
To older generations
Nevil Shute was a much- loved popular novelist, but to SF fans of my vintage and younger Shute’s name is mostly associated with his enduring On The Beach – a book that may have had a more profound influence than most genre works.
Nevil Shute Norway, born in 1899 in London, worked in aircraft and airship engineering at an exciting time of rapid innovation, developing his writing in parallel. The Second World War was the making of Shute the popular novelist, who wrote about “small people of no great significance, caught up and swept together like dead leaves in the great whirlwind of the war.”
In 1948- 9 Shute, becoming disillusioned with post- war Britain, left for Australia. In his 1952 pot- boiler novel The Far Country, the heroine Jennifer muses on one of the blessings of Australia: “Secure – I suppose it is. Nobody seems to be afraid an atom bomb is going to land next door tomorrow, like we are in England.” Shute’s idea for On The Beach grew out of this wishful thinking. Initially he planned a story of how Australia might survive with the northern hemisphere destroyed by nuclear conflict, but his research showed him this was a vain hope. The book Shute finally wrote reflects this grim logic, taking its title from TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, which spoke of “this last of meeting places… the beach of the tumid river…” before the world ends “with a whimper”.
Following nuclear war in 1961, Australian society stoically waits for the fallout to arrive. The schedule of annihilation is relentlessly followed: “After [ Melbourne has] gone Tasmania may last another fortnight, and the South Island of New Zealand…” We study the reactions of those who gather
The subtext is how we cope with the certainty of death
“on the beach”: coldly truthful, desperate love affairs, reckless drinking and partying. The book closes with a tough litany of final bits of business. The family of a young naval officer tidy up their house before delivering a lethal injection to their baby and going to bed.
Mainstream writers venturing into end- of- the- world SF seem to unnerve their readers more than genre writers. But the subtext is how we cope with the certainty of death: “None of us really believe it’s ever going to happen – not to us. Everybody’s crazy on that point, one way or another.”
Beach was Shute’s widest success to date, and in 1959 was memorably filmed by Stanley Kramer. The stoicism of the characters offended some readers, but then Shute came from a generation which had stiff- upper- lipped its way through huge emergencies. Shute was a schoolboy when his brother, aged 19, died in the First World War trenches: “I was born to one end, which was to go into the army and do the best I could before being killed…” This stoical bleakness found expression in the calm acceptance of Beach.
As an “awful warning”, Beach was forward- looking; it would be decades before the idea of the “nuclear winter”, the global climate catastrophe that would likely follow a major nuclear exchange, formed. Shute blamed society at large for its nuclear folly: “The only possible hope would have been to educate them [ the masses] out of their silliness.” If so the warning was effective; Shute’s biographer claims that the novel and the movie spurred anti- nuclearweapon sentiments.
Shute, who died in 1960, would not have described his books as SF, but as projections of the social transitions he saw around him. But Shute’s popularity brought SF materials to a wide audience who may have read no SF other than his. And if On The Beach was the only SF novel you ever read, it was a story with a useful moral.
Signs of the end times
Release Date: OUT NOW!
550 pages | Hardback/ ebook Author: Stephen Baxter Publisher: Gollancz
worlds within a multiverse of possibilities and lots of alternate history… Arguably, Stephen Baxter’s Ultima, the sequel to last year’s Proxima, slams together all of the author’s recurring fictional obsessions.
This is no bad thing. It is, after all, not just a novel about the end of the world, but the end of all worlds, as seen from the perspective of a motley bunch of travellers who are buffeted around the multiverse as they’re caught up in events they hardly understand, events orchestrated by a network of vast minds.
If that sounds rather abstract, then rest assured there’s much of the Golden Age fantastic adventure here too, as Baxter shows us Roman legionnaires in space, and imagines what might happen if the Incas had survived and prospered to eventually get off– planet.
If the novel darkens towards the end, as our heroes learn just why they keep getting chucked around the universe, this is a necessary change in tone. Less necessary perhaps is the sheer amount of exposition at the end of the book, much of it delivered by the likeably monstrous Earthshine, an AI created from human intelligences.
Nonetheless, as with its predecessor, this is a hard SF novel that battles bravely with big ideas. With every passing year, the oft- made remark that Baxter is Arthur C Clarke’s heir seems more and more apt. Jonathan Wright Next for Baxter: The Long Utopia, volume four in his Long Earth sequence with Terry Pratchett; it’s due in June.