Nevil Shute’s On the Beach
Book and Films
In 1957 Nevil Shute, 1899-1960, 1 published his novel about the after effects of nuclear war and the immanent coming of human extinction in the aftermath.
The novel is in many respects typical of the end of the world novel but in other respects it is not typical. For one thing this novel is very bleak it ends quite emphatically with the certainty of human extinction. There is in other words no hope of human survival whatsoever.
For a novel with such a bleak ending it is in many respects surprisingly banal in what it describes in terms of the characters and how they behave. One would think that the immanent coming of inevitable, inexorable human extinction would give rise to a great burst of wild human behaviour. Well in the book there is surprisingly little of that.
The main problem with the book is that the humans in the book just do not ring altogether true, but for now I would like to look at the novel’s scenario of human extinction.
Now Shute did do his research and endeavoured to make his scenario of human extinction plausible. In his book a war between China and Russia goes nuclear and then the USA and Britain gets involved. All these powers are using cobalt bombs and underestimate their lethality. The bombs release and create great clouds of radioactive cobalt into the atmosphere and as they spread they expose everyone in the northern hemisphere to lethal doses of radiation. The result is the killing of everything in the Northern hemisphere in a matter of months. Gradually the spread of the radioactive dust through atmospheric circulation over the Southern hemisphere kills everyone surviving, who doesn’t commit suicide first. Thus the human race goes extinct.2
Now Shute should be given kudos for his cobalt bomb idea in the novel. He wanted to write a novel about human extinction from a nuclear war and so he used what was at the time a plausible scenario. The idea of making the fallout of nuclear weapons more lethal by using cobalt in the bombs was theorized by several scientists. Although fortunately very few were ever built for real. Through the use of cobalt a fine and very radioactive dust would be created and in theory less than a 1000 such weapons would be required to kill everyone on earth. To say nothing of decimating most life forms.
In Shute’s scenario the dust blown up into the atmosphere is then gradually spread over the entire planet by high winds that slowly spread the radioactive dust from the northern to the southern hemisphere. In Shute’s scenario the dust will continue to fall and eventually cover the entire planet killing just about everything.
Now the problems with Shute’s scenario are many. For example Shute seems to assume that the radioactive dust would be spread over the planet evenly over a period of years. That is unlikely, local wind patterns, rain etc., would dictate that even using cobalt bombs there would be considerable local variation in the amount of radioactive dust. Thus even assuming Cobalt bombs the variation in terms of contamination would be enormous it would require many more than 1000 bombs to ensure everywhere got a lethal dose.
Further the use of cobalt bombs was rather unlikely precisely because of their capacity to make large areas radioactive deserts for hundreds of years. In fact very few such bombs were built. Let alone tested.3
Also the simple fact is that the great majority of the dust would come to earth in a relatively short time after the bombs went off. In Shute’s novel the events take place more than a year after the nuclear war. Actually by then most of the radioactive dust would have precipitated out of the atmosphere. Further Shute seemed to be unaware, or ignored, that prevailing wind patterns would have kept most of the high altitude radioactive dust in the northern hemisphere. So that most of the southern hemisphere would have avoided fatal exposure to high levels of radioactive dust, the great majority of which would have fallen to earth by one year later anyway.
So although Shute’s scenario of human extinction is plausible it is not very likely to have happened even under the circumstances he describes. Even in the Northern Hemisphere, local variation in winds etc., would have created regions of very low levels of radioactive dust. So that humans would survive there.
Since Shute’s scenario is in terms of the real world merely plausible sounding but not believable, does that affect our enjoyment of the novel? Not really. After all it merely has to be plausible not probable. It sounds like it could happen. And that is generally enough. What is more problematic is Shute’s description of human behaviour.
Shute has his heroes go on an expedition to the northern hemisphere seeking any survivors. They don’t find any and go back to die. This is as close as the novel gets to describing government action. I find it interesting that there is no description or even real reference to governments in the Southern Hemisphere, even though they have a year+ to work with, doing anything with shelters, or hiding in caverns deep underground. Once they find out that there are no survivors in the Northern Hemisphere and the clouds of lethal radioactive dust are coming everyone seems to fold up and give up. Not in the slightest believable. I have little doubt that governments in this situation would dig, or build in deep underground places shelters and place some people and has much as they can save of human civilisation. And certainly some people would, rich people for example, would try to survive as long as possible.
Instead the governments’ are remarkably passive. The human race is going extinct – Ho-hum. In fact in the novel human society is remarkably orderly and passive right to the end. Everything is normal and functions normally right until everyone takes their suicide pills. Not bloody believable in the slightest. I would expect that civil order would breakdown in the face of such a disaster, as it does all too often when humans face extreme natural disasters. The image in the novel of normality and order, society functioning “perfectly” while people wait quietly in line for their suicide pills and then going home to kill themselves and their families. It is inherently vastly more absurd than Shute’s cobalt bomb extinction.
The passivity of Shute’s characters in the face of human extinction is simply hard to believe. The 1959 movie version4 of the book is actually in many respects worse than the book in the passivity of its human characters. What is missing is those humans who would go down kicking and screaming. Those who would do everything possible to live a little longer. Further like the book the sheer, numbing normality of everything right to the end is simply unbelievable. I would expect total societal breakdown, not a 1950’s suburban normality right to the end.
On the Beach (1959)
In many respects the 1959 movie version is a World War Two flick, sprinkled with nostalgia. The spirit of the film is resignation and passive acceptance of the end, and everything is sentimental and glossed over until the end. We do not see any bodies or anyone killing themselves; it is all off screen. It is interesting to point out that the 2000 miniseries version of the book does show societal breakdown and has such it is more believable than the earlier movie or the book. Further unlike the earlier movie we see dead bodies and a family suicide.5 However the humans in the miniseries are still remarkably passive.
In real life some people would refuse to take the pills and try to live as long as possible. Further some would go underground. Certainly given the amount of time they had some governments at least would build shelters to protect some people so they would survive. Some survivalists and rich folks would also try to live underground. And only go above ground in radiation suits. There would be small batches of humans who would live above ground, kicking and screaming until the radiation killed them. Some humans would live for months and probably years below ground until their technology failed or they ran out of food. Shute by ignoring those possibilities produced a novel inhabited by people who aren’t quite real.
Now Shute’s purpose was to produce a novel about the end of humanity and it would have defeated its purpose to have humans surviving. Still by having his human’s behave in ways that are hard to believe he changed his novel from plausible to fantasy. Not because some humans don’t behave that way but because he has all humans behave that way.
On the Beach (2000)
1. Nevil Shute, Wikipedia, Here, Shute, Nevil, On the Beach, Ballantine Books, New York, 1981, (Org. Pub, 1957).
2. IBID, Shute.
3. Ball, Desmond, The Probabilities of On the Beach: Assessing‘ Armageddon Scenarios’ in the 21st Century, 2006, at The International Relations and Security Network Here.
4. On the Beach (1959 film), Wikipedia Here. For a critique of the film see Inglis, Fred, The Cruel Peace, BasicBooks, New York, 1991, pp. 183-185.
5. On the Beach (2000 film), Wikipedia Here.