On the Resolute Nihilism of a True End Times Classic

Liam Pieper Rereads Nevil Shute's On the Beach

It was summer, and most of Australia was on fire. Seasonal bushfires have always been part of Australian life, but never like those that rang in 2020. Fire fronts met in regions so remote humans rarely visited, and roared towards cities, so hot they created their own weather systems and electrical storms, which in turn sparked more fires. Rainforests that had stood for millennia burned so fiercely that the microflora in the ground was sterilized, rural towns were obliterated, and cities were choked in smoke.

Naval warships were called in to evacuate towns in the path of the fires. Around the world, news media published indelible images of children sheltering on the beach while their homes burned in the background, of a baby kangaroo tangled in a barbed-wire fence barbecued. Dozens of people died—with many more deaths attributed to smoke which blanketed much of the country.

In my hometown of Melbourne, the streets emptied out, the towering Art Deco facades of buildings along the bustling high street faded behind a grey miasma. It was extraordinary, unprecedented. But also strangely familiar. It was a scene uncannily preempted by Nevil Shute’s 1957 science-fiction classic, On the Beach.

The book opens about two years after a nuclear holocaust, in which rival superpowers have destroyed much of the northern hemisphere in a “short, bewildering war … of which no history had been written or would ever be written now.” Fallout is drifting steadily south on the wind, and radiation poisoning is killing everyone in its path.

The book centers on a handful of Australians—a naval officer, his wife, their friend, an alcoholic party girl from a wealthy pastoral family, and an American submarine officer who escaped the initial cataclysm—as they wait to die in Melbourne, on the southern reach of Australia and one of the last major cities the radiation will reach. The central characters wait, and listen to radio news reports of northern cities “going dark” one by one.

A reconnaissance trip to the devastated US in hope of a solution proves pointless, and after that there is very little plot. A widowed US naval officer considers an affair with an Australian woman and decides against it. People party, dance a little, listen to records, and go to movies.

With nothing to do but wait for the radiation to reach them, the Australian population must decide what to do with their remaining time on earth. Most opt to drink themselves to death.

I’d never read anything quite like it or imagined a storyteller could get away with such unremitting gloom.

The government’s final act of stewardship is to dispense suicide pills for each citizen, and the final scenes are a montage of the characters we have gotten to know euthanizing themselves, their loved ones, their pets, and their infants. There is just nothing to be done in the face of what will happen. This is a book without villains, without antagonists, without conflict.

It’s a strange, dark novel—no plot and all coda, an exercise in sustained melancholy. When I first read it as a sci-fi obsessed teenager, it was a revelation.

I couldn’t believe Melbourne, my suburban enclave which seemed so staid and boring and insignificant was the subject of such a book. I’d never read anything quite like it or imagined a storyteller could get away with such unremitting gloom.

Up until that point, my idea of an imagined future was informed by Star Trek, the fever dream of a polyamorous LA traffic cop turned show-runner who imagined a better future where everybody obeyed the rules and wore sensible onesies. In Star Trek, there was nothing that couldn’t be solved in half an hour through expositional dialogue and essential decency.

But here was a book that offered neither optimism, nor the dense action and world building of pulp. There was almost no world building at all—just the world as it was, ending. I’d never encountered such naked nihilism in speculative fiction before, or any fiction, really. Reading it for the first time in that school library was one of those formative moments that makes you realize what is really possible. In this book about entropy and diminishing hope, there was a lesson—there were no rules in literature. Anything was possible.

This book was hugely influential on me as a writer, and, beyond that, I think on Australian culture too. The grim nihilism of this work set the tone for Australian depictions of our possible futures for decades to come—there are echoes of it everywhere, from Mad Max to Mad Max 3, Beyond Thunderdome.

I once knew a playwright who became dismayed because every time he had a breakthrough—thought he’d come up with a truly original take on the human condition—he’d go back to his volume of Shakespeare’s works only to find it was something the Bard wrote long before he was born. A similar thing occurred to me reading this book—no matter how smart or cynical about humanity I thought I was, Shute had beaten me to it years ago.

The generation directly after mine has grown up with rolling cataclysms, one after the other, so they have lived in a more-or-less state of perpetual crisis.

Shute’s generation was the first to live with the real global existential threat—the atomic bombing that closed WWII opened up the possibility that humanity could extinguish itself entirely. Published in 1957, the staid, matter-of-fact way in which a nuclear global extinction event was presented was unimaginably bleak for readers just a few years from the social upheaval and euphoria of the 1960s.

In the few scant decades since, we have developed many, many ways to scrub ourselves from the earth. The generation directly after mine has grown up with rolling cataclysms, one after the other, so they have lived in a more-or-less state of perpetual crisis. These are children for whom the end of the world is not fantastical, but an inevitability they may well live to see.

Since On the Beach was first published, the book has gone out of fashion for readers of serious apocalyptic speculative-fiction. The science of creeping radioactive apocalypse doesn’t quite track—nuclear winter would be more ultimately disastrous than radioactive fallout, and besides, humanity, of some kind, would likely survive. Isaac Asimov was sniffy about the narrative stakes “So there’s a nuclear war to start the story with—what else is new?’

New possible avenues of total destruction became the trope of science fiction—malevolent AI, pandemic, alien invasion. This despite the fact that the threat of nuclear apocalypse never went away.

During the uneasy period of history On the Beach was written into, thousands and thousands of nuclear warheads were stockpiled within both the American and Soviet superpowers for little reason beyond the military having to pad out its budgets. At the height of the Cold War, an audit found that several nuclear weapons were primed to fire at a remote Soviet airbase that held no strategic significance—simply because the weapons needed a target if the military wanted to continue building nukes. The US leadership used their nuclear arsenal in the same spirit of a chef looking at herbs wilting in the back of their fridge, wondering how they could be used spice things up.

Shute’s book had escalating tensions leading to deliberate destruction of the world by American and Russian warmongers. The 1959 movie adaptation of On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire, showed a softer, watered down version of the apocalypse in which the nukes are launched by computer error. This substitution infuriated Shute, and his anger reportedly contributed to a fatal stroke a month after the film premiered.

He died a best-selling and much-admired novelist in his adopted home of Melbourne. In the decades since, his popularity has waned, but his book has only grown more relevant, as the twin drives of acquisitiveness (individual, national, capitalist) and apathy have rendered more and more of the world close to uninhabitable. Each year more species of wild animals are declared extinct, while exploitation of other species for food are suspected in the interspecies transfer of ever-deadlier superbugs, the latest of which has laid the world low, and again emptied the streets of Melbourne—alongside every other city on earth.

Reading this book sixty-something years after it was written—while sheltering in place from another invisible, deadly existential threat that had ended all life as I knew it—I was shocked at how prescient it was. In spite of the bad sci-fi tropes and regressive gender roles (all the women in the story are either inexplicably horny drunks or an ideal housewife in a middle-England sort of a way, and in either case, exist as receptacles of expeditionary dialogue), there are moments of chilling foresight that slip between the ribs to freeze the heart.

Little throwaway fantasy conceits, the kind that litter sci-fi novels, have become less fantastic with the years. In On the Beach, the CSIRO, Australia’s premier scientific research body, has been denuded by public indifference and are helpless to do anything against the approaching apocalypse. John Osborne, the organisation’s chief radiological scientist, turns to drinking and working on a salvaged Ferrari that he plans to race in the Grand Prix and—with a little luck—die behind the wheel of.

Today, in Melbourne, it’s not difficult to imagine Shute’s apocalypse has already happened.

At the time of writing, in the midst of the pandemic, Professor Peter Doherty, one of Australia’s most esteemed scientists and Nobel Laureate, tweeted “Dan Murphy’s opening hours” in error, mistaking the Twitter search bar for Google. Dan Murphy’s is a popular budget liquor chain store in Australia. It was 1:30 pm on a Monday.

John Osborne is the book’s world-weary champion of a human-free future for the planet. At one point he tries to cheer up another character by saying, “It’s not the end of the world at all … It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

In On the Beach, the other scientists at the CSIRO use their remaining days to etch a codex of human knowledge into glass bricks, which are arranged on Mount Kosciuszko the largest peak close to Melbourne, so that if life were to ever rise again there will be some record of their doomed civilization.

Right now, in the deserts of Texas, a group of people are building a mammoth mechanical clock designed to keep time for 10,000 years. The Clock of the Long Now is designed to keep ticking long after we are gone, powered by the weather, and easily maintained with Bronze Age tools and materials, should civilization rise again.

The Clock of the Long Now is, depending on your politics, an epigraph to long-term thinking, resilience and ingenuity, a capitulation to defeat, or a testament to willful blindness by the tech barons and capitalists who have led us to the precipice of existential fatalism.

Even the idea that civilization might rise again is looking increasingly sketchy. In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure seed bank on a remote Norwegian island, designed to store a wide variety of plant seeds in deep freeze storage, so that food and other crops might be revived after environmental cataclysm, was established. In 2017, soaring temperatures linked to human-induced climate change melted the permafrost above the vault, flooding its tunnels.

We often can’t choose how to be remembered. Few civilizations realize they are looking at their own cenotaph as they are building them. I reread On the Beach, on a Kindle, a device enabled by the same billionaire who funded The Clock of the Long Now. A feature of my e-reader is that you can highlight certain passages for later reference, and all future readers of the same book will stumble upon your annotation. It’s a little like finding a battered, paperback in a store, annotated by the zeitgeist—some of the passages underlined hundreds of times.

“The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without delay. Well, probably that made sense.”

And

“The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”

And

“Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like us.”

More than any other I’ve read, in this book Shute captures the self-flagellating nature of Australian culture. Melbourne survives the initial nuclear inferno because no one bothered to nuke it—we do not have the gumption to survive, nor even when the chips are down, to try to.

On the Beach captures our national inertia in a way no other book has done since. A fun fact about urban planning: Australian cities, while modeled on European cities and named for British lords and lands, were designed without public squares in order to discourage public gathering, and the potential for revolt therein. Even Melbourne, the most self-consciously European of the capitals, didn’t have one until the ret-conning of Federation Square, a post-modernist’s nightmare that would not look out of place in the matte painting from a lazier episode of Star Trek. When it was built, we all hated it—but when they tried to tear it down to erect an Apple store, we hated that too.

The really shocking part of On the Beach are the mundane details that Shute got right. Faced with cataclysmic bushfires, then a viral pandemic, people really did react the way he predicted. As a democratic body, Australians react to despair by drinking themselves to oblivion, or hooning in hotted up cars. We did anything but do something to change our course. 

Today, in Melbourne, it’s not difficult to imagine Shute’s apocalypse has already happened. The streets are empty, everyone indoors, and if one cared to break curfew and stand on the steps of the State Library, they would find themselves standing in the final shot from the movie.

To achieve this shot in the 1959 movie, the film crew just got up early and went out to film the empty town, and Melbourne obliged by sleeping in. It was quieter back then, boasting a few million less people. A reporter from an Australian newspaper quoted Ava Gardner as saying she didn’t think much of Melbourne, and that it was the ideal place to film a movie about the end of the world. She never said that, of course, it was a fabrication by a newspaper hack from Sydney, but Melbourne ate it up as part of its folklore.

It turns out Melbourne isn’t the best place to stage the end of the world. Melbourne is actually doing incredibly well in this latest cataclysm. At the start of this year concerned friends from around the world wrote to ask if what they were seeing in Australia was real, but no matter how hard I kvetched, I couldn’t really get them to understand what these fires meant, how heavy that smoke lay on the lungs, on the mind. This was inescapable proof of the fragility of our world. The newly entrenched conservative government response was codified indifference—there was nothing to be done. It was too late to wind back industry, the carbon-powered economy. The world would have to adapt.

And then, the virus came, and the world ended again, this time en masse. Emails from abroad grew less frequent, as one by one, cities in the northern hemisphere went dark. My friends had their own nation-sized cataclysms. India was dabbling in theocracy, and ethnic cleansing. In America, they were worried about a union that was flirting with collapse and balkanization. My Balkan friends, scattered across the world, asked me not to use the genocidal break-up of their nation as an adverb.

All the little apocalypses, everyone has their own problems. That is the nature of nations. That is why they blow each other up. And we remain, for now, tucked away at the bottom of the world, waiting for the invisible thing that will finally stop all the clocks, and, somewhere on a library shelf in Melbourne, sits a book, both prophecy and eulogy, to Melbourne at the end of the world.

_____________________________________

This work is part of a series produced in collaboration with the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, where Australian authors explore and dissect a book that has had an impact on their life.

Liam Pieper
Liam Pieper
Liam Pieper is from Melbourne, Australia. His 2014 memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, is all about that and was shortlisted for the National Biography Award and the Ned Kelly Best True Crime award. His first novel The Toymaker won the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Fiction Award. He was the 2018 National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing. His latest book is Sweetness and Light, a literary thriller.





More Story
In Celebration of Bookstores Reopening The reopening of the bookstores is a cause for celebration. When I was a child, in Communist Prague there were long queues...