• Evan Symmonds

Coronavirus and On the Beach

Read this last week, just as the coronavirus was coming to the shores of Britain. It had been on my parents' bookshelves back in the 1960s when it would have been a new and current title at the time. I didn't read it back then, though other books by Shute had attracted my notice. I've known of it as the bleakest of Shute's works, and it has come to my attention more recently as one of the prototype apocalypse-fiction works. For a time it used to be considered a science-fiction novel. It is that, up to a point, in that it posits a nuclear holocaust in the northern hemisphere, but unlike most post-apocalypse fiction, this book deals not with humanity a hundred years later, or some ambiguous stretch of time, but only a matter of months. It concerns a group associated with the US navy based in Australia, and it's real focus is the psychology of people waiting grimly for the arrival of radioactive nuclear fall-out brought by the natural cycles of wind crossing gradually from north to south. Like certain novels by John Wyndham -- Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes -- the interest of the book is how the populace adjusts to oncoming catastrophe, with the predictable focus on denial, disbelief, moving through fear to acceptance. Of course, given Shute's own experience of wartime existence, the emphasis falls heavily on a kind of stiff-upper-lip style of quiet heroism. The difference between this and the Wyndham novels is that here there is no hope, no possibility of redemption, and it becomes a book about facing death, so that ultimately there's a sickly swell of nostalgia that offers short-term comfort to individuals -- until they each choose their own end in their own particular way. It's a very gloomy book! Reading this over two days as the news came in of Corvid-19 arriving, and paralleled by the less public reports of various sorts of meltdown in Italy, was a sobering experience. It's a very gloomy book! Since Shute focuses on a basic military or naval group of people, his social range is extremely limited. Strange how everyone behaves well in his book! What's missing is the chaos and selfishness, the hedonism and riots that I think would be more likely to break out. A final thought: Anthony Burgess produced a rather strange book called The End of the World News, in which the world panics at the certainty of a massive meteor-strike. I think there's a more authentic cynicism and truthful representation of likely human reaction. I'd recommend the Burgess, rather than the Shute, if you want to know how people might behave when the end comes. But you have to work through two other stories in the same book, one about Freud escaping Nazi Germany, and the other about Bolshevik revolutionaries. Burgess squeezed together three separate books into one, I seem to recall reading ...

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