It’s perhaps unwise, and certainly ungenerous, to let the wisenheimer in me create the title of this post. Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel deserves its standing as a classic of apocalyptic fiction, because it presents an incredibly depressing topic in a manner that’s compelling and unforgettable. It begins just after a global nuclear war has devastated the northern part of the planet. In southern Australia, a handful of survivors hope to avoid the southern spread of radioactive fallout, and make contact with anyone above the equator. Yet with the advance of each page, hope is eliminated like autumn leaves falling to the ground. There is nobody left to receive the messages sent from Australia; the radiation retains its lethal potency as it makes its unstoppable descent. “On the Beach” is one of the few literary works where it’s best to know how it will end before you begin reading, because that ending — the extermination of humanity, as well as most other life on Earth — is overwhelming to contemplate.
And yet, while I appreciate the novel’s ability to keep me engaged with its characters, I can’t help being amused by their unwavering serenity. Maybe I’ve seen too many Mad Max movies, and been conditioned to believe civilization is just a catastrophe away from collapsing into anarchy and brutality. By comparison, the stoicism with which the characters in “On the Beach” meet their doom seems quaint, antiquated. Their actions seem impossibly naive; one character decides to enroll in secretarial school, another finishes working on his sports car, and as the government announces that suicide pills will be distributed free of charge (how charmingly magnanimous), one couple decides to, yes, go on a fishing trip. (They worry that their fishing may disrupt the breeding cycle of the fish, an incredibly odd thought for people who know that everything’s going to be dead within a few weeks.)
But maybe it’s that impossible serenity that explains this novel’s continued appeal. We probably believe that we should respond to Armageddon with such tranquility, even if we can’t actually see ourselves acting that way if our end does come. And that is why, despite having the most depressing of all outcomes, and despite the irresistable temptation to have some fun with its outdated sentimentallity, “On the Beach” nevertheless remains an inspirational novel.