On The Beach Nevil Shute, 1957

Re­mem­ber when nu­clear fall­out felt like a very real and press­ing dan­ger? Stephen Baxter looks back

SFX - - Rated / Books -

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

Cos­mol­ogy, al­ter­nate

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.

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