Saturday, April 28, 2018

the last book I read

On The Beach by Nevil Shute.

It's 1963. We're in Melbourne. Melbourne's nice, isn't it? The sea, the cricket, the Royal Exhibition Building, all that stuff. Plus, that whole thing about southern Australia being the last place on Earth not ravaged by nuclear firestorms and lethal radioactive fallout. That stuff really puts a damper on your holidays, let me tell you.

Let's step back for a moment. There's been a nuclear war, centred mainly in the northern hemisphere. As far as anyone can tell, it was started, not by any of the major powers kicking off at each other, but by a combination of actions by Albania and Egypt. Sounds implausible, you might say, but don't forget World War I was caused by some Serbian nutter plugging an Austrian prince. Anyway, gradually the major powers are drawn into the conflict and eventually just empty their nuclear arsenals at each other in an orgy of mutually assured destruction. And these aren't the nice cuddly nuclear bombs either, the ones that just scour the earth flat and then bid you good day, no, these are the really nasty dirty ones that produce a shroud of radioactive filth that circles the entire earth for decades.

The trouble with radioactive fallout is that the darn stuff just won't stay where it's put, and the natural cycles of wind and weather carry it inexorably south into all the southern hemisphere countries that have just been sitting there minding their own business.

So this is where we come in. Australian naval officer Peter Holmes has been seconded as a liaison officer to what remains of the US Navy fleet, which has divided itself between South America and Australia. The submarine that's stationed in Melbourne is under the command of Dwight Towers and he and Peter strike up a good relationship, good enough for Peter to invite Dwight up to stay at his house and meet his wife Mary, baby daughter Jennifer and their friend Moira Davidson.

So in many ways life is going on as normal. But there are certain practical problems like a lack of fuel, and some slightly different ones, like: what are acceptable topics of conversation? It's well-known that the radioactive cloud is on the way south, and that in no more than a few months everyone will be dead, but you don't really want to spend the whole evening talking about that. Also, with Dwight around, do you ask after his wife and children, knowing as you do that they were probably all turned into pork scratchings a while back?

Dwight and Peter are called in to be briefed for a mission: take the submarine across the Pacific to Seattle, from where an intermittent radio signal has been picked up. There almost certainly can't be anyone left alive, but it'll be an opportunity for a reconnaissance mission, and it'll keep the Navy boys busy for a month or so. Just be sure to stay submerged the whole time once you're in the contaminated zone and just snoop around via the periscope. So they trek northwards and send a man ashore in Seattle (in full protective gear) to find the source of the radio signal, which turns out to be a broken window frame intermittently banging on some old radio equipment which is connected to a still-working generator. It's not possible to see much from sea level, still less periscope level, but the conclusions are clear enough: everyone's dead.

So the submarine returns to Melbourne, and everyone gets busy with the important business of waiting to be turned inside out by nuclear radiation. Some take up dangerous hobbies like driving cars at unsafe speeds and getting messily killed, some drink themselves into a stupor, some do the more palatable bucket-list stuff like going hiking and fishing, some decide not to wait and check out early by using the suicide pills that the Australian government has made available to everyone. Peter goes home to his family and, as they all start to succumb to radiation sickness, has to make the unthinkable decision to give his baby daughter a lethal injection before he and the wife chomp down on the suicide pills. Meanwhile Moira is sitting in her car watching Dwight take his submarine out into the bay to scuttle it, while munching on her own pill.

The end of the human race and most other life on Earth is, you won't need me to tell you, a pretty heavy downer, and it's clear pretty early on here that there's not going to be a miracle cure or an alien intervention or anything like that: everyone we meet in the early pages of the novel is going to be dead by the end, after only a few months of novelistic timeline have elapsed. But, as in Never Let Me Go, this just serves as a sly reminder that we're all going to die, and the frantic attempt to cram everything else you want to do into the time you've got left is just a more compressed version of what everyone has to do with their lives anyway.

There are a few fairly obvious criticisms that could be made here: everyone's stoical and stiff-upper-lip to an almost comical degree, society continues to function despite everyone being under imminent sentence of death and there doesn't seem to have been any descent into lawlessness and looting and violence. In reality you suspect things might have got a little bit more Lord Of The Flies by the end. I mean, Peter does take a garden bench from a shop in the last few days without paying for it, but it's a very middle-class sort of looting. The interlude where top boffin John Osborne races his Ferrari and ends up winning the Australian Grand Prix is a bit odd as well and seems to have been pasted in from a completely different novel, presumably just because Shute liked cars and wanted to put some racing sequences in.

This doesn't really matter, though, as the central story is so compelling. It's oddly reminiscent of Stephen King's The Langoliers in some ways: everything playing out against the backdrop of some Really Bad Stuff approaching relentlessly and unstoppably, although in that story there turned out to be an escape route after all. It doesn't flinch from some of the more unpalatable business like having to euthanise your own one-year-old child, although Shute enables the reader to maintain some emotional distance by referring to baby Jennifer as "it" throughout, which may just have been how people (or, more specifically, men) referred to small children in the 1950s (the novel was published in 1957) but seems a bit odd to modern eyes.

Anyway, it's very good, and though Shute isn't as hugely popular or fashionable these days as he was in the 1950s and 1960s, it's well worth reading. It's natural film material and was pounced upon almost immediately for an adaptation in 1959, and then again in 2000.

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