Nevil Shute’s On the Beach is credited as an example of fiction that changed the way we think about a major world problem or issue, in this case nuclear war and weapons. It is one among many prophetic type books that has predicted doom and apocalypse, but the book also impacted its readers heavier than most other novels do. I still read about On the Beach in modern news articles as media asks “what novel on climate change will wake people up like On the Beach did for nuclear weaponry?”
The novel was published in 1957 and takes place in Melbourne, Australia, following the days of the last live people on earth. I read the book several years ago and was greatly disturbed by it but still have the book up there among one of my favorites ever. The characters highly suspect that radiation is drifting down to them after having wiped out the rest of the world. And they are right. Their attempts to live their last days as normally as possible conflict with the horrifying knowledge that they are at the terminus. The New York Times said of the novel, “the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war.”
The phrase “On the Beach” is a Royal Navy term signifying “retired from service”. The novel also begins with lines from Walt Whitman’s poem “On the Beach at Night“. The poem is ominous in nature but is simply about a man teaching his daughter about the planet Jupiter, which they can see at night. However, due to clouds soon blocking the view, the young girl thinks that the planet has gone away forever and becomes sad. But of course Jupiter is still really there. Whitman seemed content to only raise the question of a dying planet.
I found this book in fairly good shape at a used book store. It’s a hard back with a yellow ribbon bookmark.