Nevil Shute's On the beach (1957) is different. Very different. Perhaps the world it portrayed – one where Australia (and indeed the whole southern hemisphere) has narrowly escaped nuclear annihilation, only to succumb months later to the radioactive winds blowing in from the northern hemisphere – is what makes it so different. On the beach is post-apocalyptic in every sense of the word, except for the fact that the society described (mainly Australia) is in no way descending into barbarism and chaos: rather they are accepting of their fate, to various degrees, and life goes on to the very end. T.S Eliot's famous quote, which also adorns the title page is apt: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper”.
It made me think of the ad-hoc difference made between “plot” and “setting”, as if these two things were somehow divisible: the plot was good but the setting boring, or the setting was compelling and interesting but the plot was bland. It seems to me that what makes post-apocalyptic novels stand out is that the setting very often IS the plot. As I wrote in my post on the chronotope, the post-apocalyptic world is one that is re-discovered, as in a travelogue, and no-one would demand a travelogue to have a plot beyond the descriptive: “I came from here and went there and saw this”. In On the beach, the setting is one of a still-living and breathing Australia waiting for the inevitable, together with the submerged scouting trips by the last operational US submarine Scorpion all along the United States coastline which allows for a glance into what will soon be true in all the world.
The plot then, naturally, is 'merely' the lives, thoughts and feelings of those still alive to witness this – in particular the burgeoning but never consummated love affair between Commander Dwight Towers and Moira Davidsson, Peter Holmes and his slightly delusional wife and their newborn baby daughter Jennifer, and the egghead John Osbourne with his Ferrari and newfound passion for racing. Each tells a slightly different and quite compelling version of how to cope with the whimpering end of the world. Perhaps the only thing marring this setting and plot is the hunch I have that radiation would not work in the way Shute describes it, notwithstanding any potential 'cobalt' bombs used – the lethal fallout would have rained down and disappeared long before reaching Australia, and even if not it would have been rendered mostly harmless in 15 months time. The real problems, it seems to me, would be the unimaginable social turmoil brought on by such a war, the collapse of industry and most probable the inevitable famine and unstoppable mass of refugees from the areas of conflict. Although Shute addresses the issue of petroleum no longer being available, in the book it is truly a minor problem: trains and electric-powered trams, together with bikes and horse-drawn carriages can apparently completely replace fuel driven transport with nary a hitch. Likewise, until the very, very end (as in a few days until the radiation arrives), there is no sign of normal day-to-day business changing at all: people still show up at work, buy and sell things, plan their gardens and otherwise go about their lives, despite (or perhaps because of) the inevitability of their demise. It's a testament to Shute's skill as a novelist that he manages to pull it off.
Because he does, he really does. On the beach is a quiet, contemplative, incredibly solemn view of the post-nuclear holocaust. We are left with the image of empty houses in the morning air, completely untouched, bathed in the deadly, invisible and incomprehensible new threat to all life on earth that had been unleashed just slightly more than a decade before Shute's book was published. A new kind of sublime for our age, the nuclear sublime.
Of course, the nuclear sublime is now receding, and what comes next...well...that'll be for my thesis to find out, maybe?