Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On The Beach

     Published in 1957, 'On the Beach' was one of the first novels to try to imagine and portray the aftermath of a global nuclear conflict. The bleakness of the future of the survivors near Melbourne, Australia as the deadly cloud of radioactive fallout makes its way from the Northern Hemisphere to eventually blanket the southern had such an emotional impact on readers that it gave rise to the  disarmament movement. Two years after it was published Stanley Kramer made a film of it and the message of the book reached a wider audience. Here is a great article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the film version.
     The book opens with a line from T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' - "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". Eliot's poem has been written about many times and was hugely influential. The last lines of the poem have been connected to nuclear war thanks to Shute's book. The hollow men are dead, the people in Shute's novel are the walking dead, except unlike Rick Grimes' little tribe battling zombies in their own peculiar dystopia, Shute's characters don't get to live once they do what they have to do.
     There were a few things in the novel that bothered me, Commander Towers always addressed Moira Davidson by the term 'Honey' even though he was scrupulously faithful to his dead wife in the novel. It was just irritating and betrays an emotional detachment. Did he not remember her name most of the time? For two people sharing their last moments on earth together and presumably like each other very much, the banal conversation and pleasantries make, what should be an emotional and deeply involved relationship, into one of Austen's comedies of manners. The subtext was always deadly serious in Austen too, but here the epithet is annoying and patronizing.
     The novel also follows Peter and Mary Holmes , a young couple with an infant daughter. What are held to be some of the most emotional scenes from the book and film involve the fate of this child. Peter instructs his unwilling wife on how to inject their child with a government provided poison to end people's lives so they do not have to die of radiation sickness, if the cloud reaches them while he is away. At the end of the book the little girl, named Jennifer, is gravely ill and Peter gives her the injection after which he and his wife take the pills and end their lives. It irritates me a little that the little girl is referred to most of the time as "the baby" and "it". If Shute wanted to elicit an emotional response, he should have written her name more often and referred to her as the Holmes' daughter and make her a breathing human being rather than the doll that Mary Holmes fusses over continually to pass the time.
      Shute got the science wrong. Even in 1957, it was clear that radiation would begin to decay almost immediately and having it dispersed around the entire globe would reduce its power as well. Shute researched his subject and had the radiation grow and increase in intensity as it was being distributed around the globe by making the bombs 'dirty' or cobalt bombs. The science even then did not really back up that contention and accidents like Chernobyl have proved radiation decays faster than we thought and life is more resilient too.
     Shute's nuclear blasts destroyed life without destroying property. The last submarine roaming the world looked through its periscope at cities that were intact only the people were gone. He also claimed that certain mammals like cats and rabbits were more resilient than humans. Not likely and they will not inherit the earth, insects and grass were all that would remain wrote Jonathan Schell in the Fate of the Earth.
     I find the stoicism of the population unbelievable too. When there is no future, the old rules don't apply anymore. There are people in the novel who continued to go to work in cafes and stores right up to the end. Why would people not just leave the doors open and not bother to charge customers for purchases? There was a butler at the men's club who showed up to serve drinks even when the radiation reached Melbourne and the sickness was beginning to be felt. People don't freak out, there is no rash of murders or riots. Everyone accepts their fate, except those that continue to plan gardens and home improvements and talk about the next year as if there would be one. I agree with Kramer who had Dwight Tower consummate his relationship with Moira. His wife and children were dead after all and soon he would be too. Why would a man not take some comfort where he can?
     Shute took the lazy way out, he did not try to predict who would take the first shot or why. The Australians seem to be in the dark about how it happened. It was a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding. The novel's scientist Julian Osborne surmises the first bomb was launched by Albania against Italy. Then someone dropped a bomb on Tel Aviv. The Brits and Americans suspected the Egyptians and made military flights over Egyptian territory, without firing a shot. The Egyptians then sent out all the bombs they had six to Washington and seven to London. The bombers they used were Russian made so the Russians were bombed. With the leading statesmen of most countries dead, decision making devolved down to very junior military leaders and the Chinese released their ICBM to support Russia. The final verdict was that it was not the superpowers that started the nuclear conflict, it was the little ones, "the Irresponsibles".
     Albania was a communist state and officially atheist in 1957, although it was occupied by Italy during WWII there was no reason for there to be hostilities between Italy and Albania. An early strike on Tel Aviv is plausible enough, Israel has so many enemies, from there it gets more unlikely especially as neither Albania nor Egypt have nuclear capability. Shute did not anticipate North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
      It was an important book but it was a long and dull read as nothing happens. People go about their lives and pass the time with stiff upper lips until they have to die. And then they do.

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