Nevil Shute – On The Beach

Sometimes you just want to watch the world burn, you know? So I bookmarked a list of ‘apocalyptic’ books here and set about seeing which ones were available at my library and local used bookstore.

In particular, I was looking to avoid well-established dystopias – I wanted to read about a world in the process of ending, not one that had ended ‘many moons ago’ or whatever stupid time measurement people start using when they forget the word for ‘month’ but can still remember the word for ‘llama.’ I had already read a handful of the books on this list (World War Z, Oryx & Crake, The Road, The Stand, I Am Legend, and A Canticle for Leibowitz) but was hoping to find one written closer to the nuclear age.

I was born in 1981, so some of the first images I clearly remember seeing on TV were Donald Duck, He-Man…and fallout zones marked in red on a map of the world in black and gray. Luckily I missed out on the actual hair-raising, sinus-clearing panic of the 50’s and 60’s when people were like “Holy shit, we could really get nuked, couldn’t we” and they were drilling schoolkids in hiding under their desks and giving them iodine pills for their Howdy Doody lunchboxes – but the 80’s as I experienced them were far from done with that nuclear panic, and of course you have to account for the fact that I was so young that every exposure to it soaked into my still-being-wired brain, pruning and fertilizing connections as it percolated down. One of my earliest memories of being aware of the possibility of nuclear war was watching ‘The Big Snit‘ on CBC before leaving for kindergarten in the morning. (It also left me with a general revulsion towards marriage, which is unrelated.)

I thought: The Russians could send a missile around the globe, just like the TV shows, trailing a dotted line behind it, and could blow up part of the USA.

I thought: But the USA will retaliate and send their own missile with its own dotted line.

I thought: And then the red circles will start, and then grow, and we will all get sick and die.

I knew about the keys that had to be turned, the launch codes, nuclear submarines (fueled and armed), ICBMs, symptoms of radiation sickness, the flash images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear test craters, Bikini Atoll, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the vague but powerful notion that a white man in a suit somewhere wanted everyone to die. I constantly wondered what it would be like, how long it would take to get to us, what we would do. Obviously we didn’t have a bunker. But what about the shed in the backyard? And so on.

So yeah: ‘On The Beach’ seemed like it would be a solid winner. I liked the idea that it had been written at the height of the nuclear panic that I had not been born in time to experience, and hoped that some of that atmosphere of fear and uncertainty (they wouldn’t really bomb us, would they? they’d change their mind at the last minute, right?) would come through. I also liked the premise, which involves a World War III (never named as such in the book) starting between China and Russia, quickly pulling in all the other nuclear powers until, basically, there are no more fingers left to turn the keys – and in one felicitous little touch they determine the eventual number of bombs that were used, at which, if you read it, regardless of when you grew up, I guarantee that you will yelp in disgust. The book starts just a couple of months after everything is over, and so the survivors find themselves in a creepy, liminal state of perpetual emotional and mental twilight – just past the “Motherfucker, did that really happen?” disbelief and not quite into “Well, let us carry on, business as usual” stoicism. It’s set in Australia, which is supposedly one of the very last places on Earth that still has survivors and where life is more or less normal for now – but they’re all aware that their time is running out, as radioactive particles move southward down the coast in the air and water.

I had high hopes for the story, but it disappointed me at virtually every turn – everywhere that something interesting or scary or vivid or meaningful could happen, it doesn’t. And there’s a maddening amount of stage direction, in some parts almost to the point of it looking like a screenplay: He stands up, he walks over to the table, he picks up the folder, he opens the folder, he looks inside the folder, he takes a deep breath, he puts the folder down, he picks it up again, he looks inside it again, he crosses the room again, he sits back down. So you’re not too far into the book before this becomes both obtrusive and annoying, and it never stops. I hate it when you can tell that an author desperately wanted his book to be a movie rather than just living out its life as a book.

I also found the writing in general to be kind of clunky and juvenile, as if it were written by a talented but semi-literate highschooler. A sunset gets described as ‘rosy’ seven times in two pages. I don’t mind terse prose (I won’t seek it out though; I prefer Eco and Amis and the most overwritten stuff in the world), but this is terse in all the wrong places, it’s lean where it could have used more fat, it’s dry and trite and repetitive. Worse, in the exact spots where he could have used some judicious detail to build suspense or help the reader see what the characters were seeing, he skips right over it in favour of an excruciatingly minute description of some uniformed dumbshit performing all his engineering duties on the submarine. And I know it isn’t the author’s fault when a story doesn’t go the way the reader wants it, but in this case, there were so many possibilities for great story components that are passed over in a fashion so brusque as to be almost insulting. It was like he was creating a ‘Make Your Own Adventure’ book but at every fork in the road he went for the most boring option. Even the tone of creeping dread that’s established at the start of the book – We’re all going to die! The scientists know when! The rest of the world has gone silent! There are weird signals still coming out of Seattle though! What does it mean? – vanishes a third of the way through. I did enjoy some of the speculation about why it was almost lucky that Australia was one of the few countries left, in terms of climate, infrastructure, education, military, and so on; it makes you wonder how things would go in Canada. How would the government communicate with everyone, if there was any government left? How to physically distribute supplies without electricity or gas? If suicide pills are indeed an option, rather than everybody running out and trying to fix things with some air-sucking device or something, how will they reach everyone? That kind of thing.

The part that actually ruined the book for me, though, wasn’t the treatment of the nuclear war and the end of the world at all – it was how women were portrayed in it. I’ve read my fair share of sci-fi and fantasy from this time period, OK, and I know how these ‘Golden Age’ writers tended to use women in their stories – you’ve got your standard sexpot, your mousy housewife, your strident harridan (who can only be strident about domestic things, rather than any important plot points), your impressionable young woman who is probably the niece, sister, or daughter of A Very Important Man such that main characters often have to explain this goshdarn hard science to her, your hysterical bundle of nerves, your icy rich heiress, and so on. Of these I’m particularly peeved by Starry-Eyed Science Recipient Who Has To Have Everything Explained In Short Words, mainly because it’s such a lazy and stupid way to get through necessary exposition. If you only know one way of explaining the science part of your science fiction, and it involves a significantly younger, pretty woman going “But I just don’t understand!” and a man sighingly replying “Well, honey, let me take you to lunch and explain it slowly to you,” then you’re a shitty writer. Figure something else out. I don’t care what. Any other trope that doesn’t cause me to throw my phone at the wall would be great.

And that isn’t the worst of it, though it’s close – it’s the Serious American Navy Guy who calls a younger female acquaintance ‘Honey’ all the time and talks down to her, it’s the Buttoned-Up Main Character who has a twitterpated wife and a baby that he never thinks about, it’s the idea that women are in the story simply to humanize men – and Shute doesn’t even succeed at that, constantly referring to Main Character’s baby daughter as ‘it’ and having the women richochet between the screaming meemies and lighthearted talk about garden seats and nasturtiums and playpens, and saying “Well there’s no reason to go on living now” after some men die. I wanted to grab Shute by the shoulders and shake him till his head snapped back: “Have you ever actually talked to a woman? Do you know any women? Do you know what a woman is? Could you pick one out of a lineup? Have you even eavesdropped on them while riding the bus?!”

It’s especially egregious – and I keep seeing this in movies, by the way – when a wife or a kid (especially an ex-wife or a kid in divorce proceedings) gets clumsily, obviously shoehorned into the story as a way to make the main character ‘more relatable.’ It’s happening in ‘The Strain’ right now, which I’m also reading, and I have to keep stopping myself from setting the book on fire (at least it only cost a dollar??). Main characters can and should have families, and they can and should have feelings for them, and hell, they can and should involve their families in the plot. But do it properly – don’t just hoik an ex-wife, new boyfriend, and long-suffering kid in there because someone told you that they needed to exist to make the reader care about what’s happening to the protagonist. It’s like putting a clown hat on La Pieta or something: Why? What are you doing? What’s the point? Why is it so glaringly obvious that it doesn’t belong? This is how you end up with a main character who leaves the house for two days because the teething baby won’t stop crying, with nary a mention of his wife who’s now trapped in the house with said teething baby, because that’s just what women do, doncha know.

Oh, and this:

Your baby is not an ‘it.’

She continues to not be an ‘it.’ And you continue to be a garbage person. How am I supposed to care whether you live or die at this rate?

Do you really, really, literally think this is how women talk? “Like the men say”?!? Fuck off. Not even in 1957. Women only talk like this if you can’t write.

This is the worst: “These bloody women!” Fuck youuuuuu. There was absolutely no reason to put this in here. None. There is no reason for any character, in any book, to say this about women. Even if you’re pissed off with one. (Let alone your wife, who is doing her best to keep your house and kid in one piece while you have your fucking whiskey and soda and look out over the sea while musing about how shitty she is!)

Anyway. It’s not a long read, it’s semi-interesting to see people’s reactions to the end of their life coming up as well as their immense annoyance that the rats and rabbits and cockroaches will live at least a year longer than them (I’d be annoyed too), and if it weren’t for the crummy writing, nothing ever happening on a submarine adventure cruise, and rampant misogyny, this could have been a pretty good end-of-the-world story. As it is, it’s almost a cautionary tale: DON’T BE LIKE THIS GUY.

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