On The Beach by Nevil Shute (reviewed by Bruce Taylor for Trip to the Beach summer reading program)

Here's a book not to read at the beach. It's On The Beach by Nevil Shute. Don't read it to relax. It is about a nuclear war that wipes out human kind. Everybody dies.

However, when I heard about the Take a Trip to the Beach reading program at the Libraries, the first book I thought of was this one. About a year and a half ago a friend recommended the movie - not the one from 1959 starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. The Australians produced a new version, said by my friend to be much better, as if dwelling on the theme of catastrophic mass death could be a better or worse experience. Most people I know would avoid such movies or books because they are too depressing.

I did finally find a copy of the DVD from Australia, which came out in 2006, and while waiting to receive it in the mail - it was unavailable at my local video store - I read the book. The movie, which tells the story as though it were happening circa 2006, may or may not be the more realistic of the two versions. The characters in the movie are more real to me. They behave more like I would imagine myself to behave under the same circumstances, although I am older than anyone depicted in the movie, so I don't really know. To update the story for our time, the screenwriter was justified in taking out some of the anachronisms of 1950s culture, but several changes in the story are jarring, especially the ending, which was contrived by Shute to be a little more tragic than contemporary viewers can stomach, apparently. In general, though, the movie's characters are stronger than their counterparts in the book.

The basic plot is the same. The U.S. and entire northern hemisphere is wiped out in a nuclear war. Radiation is gradually moving south toward Australia. When it hits, everyone will contract a vile and fatal sickness. All scientists agree with this grim prognosis, except for a lone wolf who calculates that radiation might have receded in parts of the north to prevent it from descending all the way south (the book), or to allow for a select group from the south to live in a pocket of safe territory (the movie) up north. To check out the theory that life on earth might have a chance, an American nuclear submarine, a boat that somehow avoided destruction during the war and had docked in Melbourne, heads toward the coast of North America to monitor radiation levels. The readings are consistently high all the way up to Alaska, and the lone wolf's theory is disconfirmed. The submarine crew also sends out a search team to investigate a freak radio transmission (book)/email (movie), which turns out not to be from survivors. Thus all hope of living through the nuclear attack is dashed. The sailors return to Melbourne to interact with Aussies and to face death, which occurs almost immediately after the submarine returns (movie)/a few months later (book).

You can't help reflecting on your own death, due either to nuclear war or some other cause. Last year there was a report on the level of death from detonation of a terrorist bomb smuggled into Long Beach harbor. The Emergency Preparation Team of the Libraries, of which I am a member, discussed choosing the scenario as a topic for our annual all staff meeting on disaster preparation. However, the shootings at the university in West Virginia came up, and our attentions were distracted. We also thought nuclear attack a too overwhelming case study. People would shudder and moan. The big difference between a terrorist dirty bomb and the story of On The Beach is that our exposure to radiation poisoning may or may not be below the level necessary to take our lives. Most of Southern California would survive, depending on how close to ground zero and what the winds are doing.

In case of a bigger bombing, my own hope is to die in the blast. Time to kill while awaiting sure disaster seems like torture. Here are some of the issues raised in On The Beach:

  • Let's say your relatives were wiped out, you were away from them when the bomb hit, and now you have a few months to live in a foreign land among strangers before you also will die. This was the predicament of the American submarine commander and his crew. Focusing on the commander, the book and movie diverge rather starkly in depicting his response. He meets some great people in Australia, parties with them, and falls in love with a terrific woman. But he can't forget his deceased loved ones either. In the book, the commander spends time dining and dancing, but he doesn't yield to sexual temptation. Even though he knows in his mind that his wife and kids are dead, and his hometown is contaminated beyond human habitation, he speaks of his family as though they are still living. He buys presents for them. The new woman in his life respects his need to maintain this pseudo-delusion, and she never presses him to face facts. She also speaks of the man's family in the present tense. In the movie, our commander suffers several moments of excruciating grief over his losses, but he takes full advantage of new opportunities for intimacy. In the end he dies in the arms of his new lover.

  • Would you keep working, or eat, drink, and be merry? There are many more instances in the book of dedication to ongoing labors. The trains are running, restaurants and pharmacies are open, and milk is available. Sometimes it is simple denial that is driving the activities of individuals. Others take up tasks that will keep themselves busy to avoid depressing thoughts. Gardens are planted, even though nothing will come up until after death. The doing of one's duty regardless of consequences is more evident in the book. The movie shows a more degenerate and anarchic scene with looting and binging. But there are also scenes of planting seeds in the garden and completing home improvement projects. There is a lot of drinking in both versions.

  • Apparently, radiation poisoning kills at slightly different rates. Some animals will outlive the humans. In the book a farmer is concerned for his cows. How will they get food after all the humans are dead? Some humans will die sooner because of their already compromised health. Unaccountably, an alcoholic has a bit of resistance to the onset of sickness, but not for long. Others will get sick and fight off the illness, feel ok for awhile, then go down like everyone else. People worry about their children, particularly infants, who could outlive their parents. Because there is time to think about these variations, people worry. Some check out early, driving cars off cliffs, for example. The government distributes suicide tablets to the population in order to ease the dying. As the illness comes closer to home, people see that the agony of radiation sickness is incredibly painful and to struggle against it is futile. In the end, most people wish to die with their loved ones instead of holding on for more time, or leaving it up to God to take them.
I have heard of several ways that life on earth could be wiped out: asteroid, volcano, black hole, pandemic, global warming, and nuclear war. Of these the last two may be most likely to occur, and the nuclear war scenario seems the most likely of all. It is a shame that we don't try to prevent it by pushing for disarmament.

Were the bombs to fall, and we had a few months before dying, I might take a swim in the ocean and sit on the beach without regard for my sun sensitive skin. When you know you are dying soon, your mission in life is bound to change and not always for the worse. Everyone has to die sometime. At least we would know for certain how and approximately when.

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