Genre: Science Fiction, End of the World

Notes: Not a great book to read right before the end of the world predictions on 5/21, but an extremely believable scenario about humans faced with extinction.

Review: If you didn’t know, there is no way you would guess Shute wrote this novel in 1957.  Everything about it feels like it could happen tomorrow.  Basically, the book focuses on the last contingent of humanity in southern Australia as they wait for the cloud of radiation that killed the rest of the world to settle in Australia.  The radiation resulted from massive bombings and hydrogen bombs detonated in various parts of the Northern hemisphere.  What the bombs didn’t kill, the radiation did.  Each continent on earth succumbed to radiation sickness as the radiation cloud slowly moved southward.

When we meet the main characters, they know the radiation will eventually take Melbourne, but each person handles it differently.  Some stubbornly deny its trajectory and cling to hope.  A naval officer and his wife plant a garden they will never see bloom.  An American naval officer who denies the fact that his family must be dead (everyone in the northern hemisphere is dead), buys gifts for his wife in children to give them when he returns home from his tour in September.  Another character, Moira, begins taking classes in shorthand in computers  – even though the end of the world will come before the class ends.  Scientists predict the radiation will move into Melbourne by September.

Others flock to churches in the hopes they will ascend to heaven when this is all said and done.  Others party and drink and live their last moments on earth to the fullest.  (scientists discover that alcoholics fight off the radiation sickness longer – but still die in the end)

Shute does an absolutely phenomenal job of showing ways of coping with this devastating news.  Books written about nuclear holocaust in the 50s probably crowded bookstore shelves, but this one is worth reading, even today.  It is still terrifying.  It still made me think “What would I do if I knew the world was going to end and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it?” When I closed the book, I had the chills and may or may not have wiped away a tear.

Shute’s power comes through in the details.  The way people keep reporting to work until just before the end.  The availability of suicide pills to take before the radiation sickness gets too bad.  The value of money.

“On the Beach” isn’t overtly political (it does have a message, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it and neglect the story.  The story reveals the writer’s intent instead of the other way around).

Also, I couldn’t help thinking of The End of the World video.  If you watch it, you’ll see why.

Bottom Line: I highly, highly recommend this book.  It is sobering and depressing, yes, but well worth the time.  But I would follow it up with a lighter, funnier book to take your mind off of the end of the world.  (I followed “On the Beach” with Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.”)