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On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957) (read in 2018)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

A nuclear conflagration has engulfed the world. In the aftermath, it’s not clear who started it or who even fought on which side. Stories differ. There is the officially accepted truth—something to do with the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans. And then there are other theories that bubble up as we meet more people. All that is clear is that the entire northern hemisphere is gone. There is an inexorable radioactive cloud creeping southward at a predictable pace. Cities go dark, day by day.

The story takes place in Australia, centered on sailor Peter Holmes in the Australian navy, an entity that has all but ceased to exist. An American submarine lands on the shores of Melbourne. Peter befriends the caption of the vessel, Commander Towers. Although there are breaks with customs and morals, many of the people stick to their lives as they were. Until they’re not anymore. The end.

There is a fuel shortage (of course) and the scope of life contracts back to earlier times, humanity slowly fading into oblivion with barely a whimper. Many take their own lives with government-provided pills. The submarine goes on several missions, but discovers nothing on the entire planet. It’s all dead. There is no reprieve. There is no happy ending for humanity. The Earth has been boiled free of life—not instantly, but definitely.


“These bloody women, sheltered from realities, living in a sentimental dream world of their own! If they’d face up to things they could help a man, help him enormously. While they clung to the dream world they were just a bloody millstone round his neck.”
Page 104

This, in a world whose cruelty was guaranteed by men.

“Very soon, perhaps in a month’s time, there would be no one here, no living creatures but the cats and dogs that had been granted a short reprieve. Soon they too would be gone; summers and winters would pass by and these houses and these streets would know them. Presently, as time passed, the radioactivity would pass also; with a cobalt half-life of about five years these streets and houses would be habitable again in twenty years at the latest, and probably much sooner than that. The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense.”
Page 173
“In the bedroom he found his mother lying on her back with her eyes closed, the bed very neat and tidy. He moved a little closer and touched her hand, but she was dead. On the table by her side was a glass of water, a pencilled note, and one of the little red cartons, open, with the empty vial beside it. He had not known that she had that. He picked up the note. It read, My dear son, It’s quite absurd that I should spoil the last days of your life by hanging on to mine, since it is such a burden to me now. Don’t bother about any funeral. Just close the door and leave me in my own bed, in my own room, with my own things all round me. I shall be quite all right. Do whatever you think best for little Ming. I am so very, very sorry for him, but I can do nothing. I am so very glad you won your race. My very dearest love. MOTHER.”
Page 185

The race to which she refers is an all-out, no-holds-barred, super-dangerous race in which George Osborne took part. George is the scientist/engineer who refurbished a race car and, along with other enthusiasts, took part in a world-championship race. He won, nearly by default, because he was one of the only ones to survive. Ming is his mother’s dog.