Written in 1957 by Nevil Shute, an aviation engineer who worked on the development of secret weapons for the British in WWII, On the Beach is the story of how a few of the last generation face their fate. A nuclear war, triggered by who knows what, has instantly killed everyone in the northern hemisphere. The contaminated winds are slowly coming to the southern hemisphere, and the people of Australia know they are doomed. They know the approximate time — several months away — when they will be developing radiation poisoning and dying.
Dwight Towers, an American submarine commander spared from death by the initial onslaught of nuclear radiation because his sub was underwater at the time the bombs were hurled from one country to another, lost his wife and two children. He has been relocated to Australia to command a sub there, and meets Moira Davidson. Moira is a young woman who bitterly realizes she will never have time to get married, become pregnant and bear children as she always assumed she would, and as her friends Mary and Peter Towers have done. Dwight and Moira get to know each other and help lessen each other’s sorrow in a very touching friendship. Peter and Mary
Towers Holmes have to face their coming fate with their newborn.
“Devastating” is a term that I think has been overused in book reviews. In this case, however, the word fits. As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would face this fate. It isn’t the same as getting “just” a death sentence. The realization that the whole planet, the whole of human civilization, would be gone, forever, made the devastation much worse.
During the past few months, I have read several end-of-the-earth/end-of-humanity novels (Life as We Knew It, The Road, Oryx and Crake, The Brief History of the Dead and The Mist; See my reviews). This is by far the best in terms of making me think seriously about what community is, what humanity is, what would be lost if everyone died. Although this was written fifty years ago, it still holds up very well.
Check the WRL catalog for the availability of On the Beach