On the Beach is a 1957 post-apocalyptic novel written by British-Australian author Nevil Shute after he emigrated to Australia. The novel details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Melbourne as they await the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the Northern Hemisphere following a nuclear war a year previously. As the radiation approaches, each person deals with impending death differently.
Shute's initial story appeared as a four-part series, The Last Days on Earth, in the London weekly periodical Sunday Graphic in April 1957. For the novel, Shute expanded on the storyline. The story has been adapted twice as a film (in 1959 and 2000) and once as a BBC radio broadcast in 2008.
The phrase "on the beach" is a Royal Navy term that means "retired from the Service." The title also refers to the T. S. Eliot poem The Hollow Men, which includes the lines:
Printings of the novel, including the first 1957 edition by William Morrow and Company, NY, contain extracts from the poem on the title page, under Shute's name, including the above quotation and the concluding lines:
The 2000 film ends with a quote from a Walt Whitman poem entitled "On the Beach at Night", describing how frightening an approaching cloud bank seemed at night to the poet's child, blotting the stars out one by one, as the father and child stood on the beach on Massachusetts' North Shore. As much as it resembles the plot of Shute's novel, the book gives no reference to the Whitman poem while the Eliot poem is presented in the book's front matter.
The story is set primarily in and around Melbourne, Australia, in 1963. World War III has devastated most of the populated world, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all human and animal life in the Northern Hemisphere. The war began with a nuclear attack by Albania on Italy and then escalated with the bombing of the United States and the United Kingdom by Egypt. Because the aircraft used in these attacks were obtained from the Soviet Union, the Soviets were mistakenly blamed, triggering a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union by NATO.
There is also an attack by the Soviets on the People's Republic of China, which may have been a response to a Chinese attack aimed at occupying Soviet industrial areas near the Chinese border. Most, if not all, of the bombs included cobalt to enhance their radioactive properties.
Global air currents are slowly carrying the lethal nuclear fallout across the Intertropical Convergence Zone to the Southern Hemisphere. The only parts of the planet still habitable are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the southern parts of South America although they are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning as well. Life in Melbourne continues reasonably normally though the near-complete lack of motor fuels makes travel difficult.
People in Australia detect a mysterious and incomprehensible Morse code radio signal originating from the American city of Seattle, Washington. With hope that someone has survived in the contaminated regions, one of the last American nuclear submarines, USS Scorpion, placed by its captain, Commander Dwight Towers, under Australian naval command, is ordered to sail north from its port of refuge in Melbourne (Australia's southernmost major mainland city) to contact whoever is sending the signal. In preparation for this journey, the submarine makes a shorter trip to port cities in northern Australia, including Cairns, Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory; no survivors are found. Two Australians sail with the American crew: Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, naval liaison officer to the Americans, and a scientist, Professor John Osborne. Commander Towers has become attached to a young Australian woman distantly related to Osborne named Moira Davidson, who tries to cope with the impending end of human life through heavy drinking. Despite his attraction to Davidson, Towers remains loyal to his wife and children in the United States. He buys his children gifts and imagines their growing older. At one point, however, he makes it clear to Moira that he knows his family is almost certainly dead, and he asks her if she thinks he is insane for acting as if they were still alive. She replies that she does not think he is crazy.
The Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so they can avoid prolonged suffering from radiation poisoning. Periodic reports show the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation. As communications are lost with a city, it is referred to as being "out." One of the novel's poignant dilemmas is that of Peter Holmes, who has a baby daughter and a naive and childish wife, Mary, who is in denial about the impending disaster. Because he has been assigned to travel north with the Americans, Peter tries to explain, to Mary's fury and disbelief, how to kill their baby and herself: to take the suicide pill should he not return from his mission in time to help. The bachelor Osborne spends much of his time restoring a Ferrari racing car that he had purchased (along with a fuel supply) for a nominal amount following the outbreak of the war.
The submarine travels to the Gulf of Alaska in the northern Pacific Ocean, where the crew determines that radiation levels are not decreasing. This finding discredits the "Jorgensen Effect", a scientific theory positing that radiation levels will gradually decrease by the weather effects and potentially allow for human life to continue in southern Australia or at least Antarctica. The submarine approaches San Francisco, observing through the periscope that the city had been devastated and the Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. In contrast, the Puget Sound area, from which the strange radio signals come, is found to have avoided destruction because of missile defences. One crew member, who is from Edmonds, Washington, which the expedition visits, jumps ship to spend his last days in his home town.
The expedition members then sail to an abandoned navy communications school south of Seattle. A crewman sent ashore with oxygen tanks and protective gear discovers that although the city's residents have long since perished, some of the region's hydroelectric power is still working because of primitive automation technology. He finds that the mysterious radio signal is the result of a broken window sash swinging in the breeze and occasionally hitting a telegraph key. After a brief stop at Pearl Harbor, the remaining submariners return to Australia to live out what little time they have left.
Osborne takes his suicide pill while sitting in his beloved racing car. When Mary Holmes becomes very ill, Peter administers a lethal injection to their daughter. Even though he still feels relatively well, he and Mary take their pills simultaneously so they can die as a family. Towers and his remaining crew choose to scuttle the Scorpion in the open ocean, fulfilling a naval duty not to leave the unmanned vessel "floating about in a foreign port" after her crew succumbs to suicide or radiation poisoning. Moira watches the departure of the submarine in her car from an adjacent hilltop as she takes her suicide pill, imagining herself together with Towers as she dies.
The characters make their best efforts to enjoy what time remains to them, speaking of small pleasures and continuing their customary activities. The Holmeses plant a garden that they will never see; Moira takes classes in typing and shorthand; Osborne and others organize a dangerous motor race that results in the violent deaths of several participants; elderly members of a "gentlemen's club" drink up the wine in the club's cellar, debate over whether to move the fishing season up, and fret about whether agriculturally-destructive rabbits will survive human beings. Towers goes on a fishing trip with Davidson but they do not become sexually involved, as he wants to remain loyal to his wife, a decision Moira accepts.
Government services and the economy gradually grind to a halt. In the end, Towers chooses not to remain and die with Moira but rather to lead his crew on a final mission to scuttle the submarine outside Australian territorial waters. He refuses to allow his imminent demise to turn him aside from his duty to the US Navy, and he acts as a pillar of strength to his crew.
Typically for a Shute novel, the characters avoid expressing intense emotions and do not indulge in self-pity. The Australians do not, for the most part, flee southward as refugees but rather accept their fate once the lethal radiation levels reach the latitudes at which they live; most of them opt for the government-promoted alternative of suicide when the symptoms of radiation sickness appear. In any case, as is made clear within the text, radiation poisoning is also starting to appear as far south as Christchurch, New Zealand, so any such flight would have been pointless.
The New York Times called On the Beach "the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war." Galaxy Science Fiction called the book "an emotional wallop. It should be made mandatory reading for all professional diplomats and politicians." San Francisco Chronicle reviewer called it "the most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off." Daily Telegraph called it "Shute's most considerable achievement" and The Times stated that it is "the most evocative novel on the aftermath of a nuclear war." The Guardian commented that "fictions such as On the Beach played an important role in raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink." The Los Angeles Times described the novel as "timely and ironic... an indelibly sad ending that leaves you tearful and disturbed" and The Economist has called it "still incredibly moving after nearly half a century."On the Beach (1959 film) is a feature film starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire
On the Beach (2000 film) is a made-for-television film starring Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown.
In November 2008, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a full-cast audio dramatization in two hour-long episodes as part of their Classic Serial strand.