So I finally got tired of refreshing my twitter feed and/or getting angry at my university and decided to read a book. The books in my bubble are… somewhat dated, but there is among them the complete works of Nevil Shute. My mother told me she had read said complete works as a teenager during trips to the bach and I don’t know that they’ve been opened since. She recommended I start with On the Beach.
Contains spoilers – if you can have spoilers for a 63-year-old book.
It took me a while to get into it, because it took me a while to realise it’s science fiction. I get the feeling that Shute would have hated the idea of his work being considered sci-fi, but there you go. It’s got the peculiar masculinity of 1950s SF, but few of the other tropes. And after 60-odd years, it holds up extremely well. Perhaps because of it not being typical of the genre.
Basic premise: On the Beach is a post-apocalyptic novel. The world has ended. Except it didn’t end for everyone at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest difference between On the Beach and more recent apocalypse novels is how little violence there is. No riots or looting. Most people still look after their neighbours. Sure, some people get angry, many maintain a steady denial that reaches into delusion, others just spend their days drunk, or endanger their own lives…
But there’s no military setting up roadblocks, no authoritarianism/societal collapse that the heroes can fight against. The main character is a naval officer (see: the peculiar masculinity of 1950s SF) but there’s no hint of a war, no suggestion that he’ll be able to save the world by blowing things up. The world has already ended. There’s scientific disagreement over this – which is very prescient – but the majority accept it. The only thing left is to wait.
Which, I’ll be honest, I fucking love. I will absolutely admit to using the trope of anarchy-in-apocalypse as recently as three days ago because it’s a thing that so many people believe. It’s difficult to show the extinction of humanity in tones that are calm and measured and quiet.
But for those of us told constantly to Hope, and that somehow Hope will save us? A story where there isn’t really any hope, where the hope that is vaguely posited is extinguished in a paragraph? That’s some refreshing shit right there.
I think if it was being written today, it’d have to linger a bit longer on the emotional states of the protagonists (I mean, Peter kills his own child in a sentence, that deserved a bit more than the car racing shenanigans). But otherwise I found On the Beach still relevant and a hell of a lot more realistic from a societal standpoint than most other disaster dystopia I’ve read.