Dark Futures Book 7: On The Beach

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we stoically face the inevitable as the world dies slowly. Yes, it is that cheerful.

If there is anything that Science Fiction pop-culture has given us in the last 50 years (aside from an urge to wield day-glo sticks that go “vwommm”) it’s a clear idea of what a nuclear holocaust would look like. Mushroom clouds, blasted cities, wasted and dazed survivors, barbarism, nuclear winter, nothing but the greys and browns of the ashes of civilisation. So I was unprepared for the visuals of On the Beach, a picture of the end of the world that takes place in bright sunshine, with vivid colours. Unprepared about that; and unprepared about everything else that came with it.

On the Beach opens in Melbourne, Australia, about a year after nuclear war engulfs the northern hemisphere, a small war between minor states escalating to a full-on firestorm between everyone, against everyone else. A lot of the weapons used are designed as area denial nukes, Cobalt-jacketed to coat areas in thick radioactive dust and kill everything with the misfortune to survive the blasts themselves. It’s a book that sets out its central premise very early – the dust clouds are coming south, slowly but irrevocably, and everything is dying in their path. Melbourne has a few months, give or take, before the clouds reach them, and there is no-where to run, and no escape to be had.

So we follow a handful of characters through their last few months of life. The captain of a US hunter-killer submarine, one of the last operational ships in the world due to her nuclear reactor,  an Australian Naval officer and his wife and daughter, a young woman the captain sort-of falls for, a mid-level scientist seconded to the sub’s exploration trips. No-one of consequence, pre-war; people able to be informed but not able to affect decisions. The whole book is essentially a character study of them, and their society, as it waits for death.

The sub goes out on reconnaissance, but finds nothing, only still, empty towns and villages, closed up as if everyone had just stepped out for a moment, taking all the animals, and birds with them. Close your eyes and image that lingers is mankind swept seamlessly away by a silent, orderly death. Its’ all very stoic, actually – there is no chaos, no riots, just people, living their lives whilst they can, as best they can. A quiet acceptance of a destiny not of their own making – and a determination to meet it with dignity.

This is a hard book to read. Not because of its language, which is flowing and accessible, not its characters, who are well drawn and likeable, but because watching these characters struggle with this is hard. The captain cannot help but refer to his family in the present tense, the Australian officer is keen to be home from the sub missions “before”, suicide pills become available on prescription. It’s a civilisation checking the windows are closed and the doors are locked before finally turning in for the long night.

And, in a first for me, I cried at the end. Words that come to mind are “heartbreaking”, and “devastating”. It’s a powerful, disturbing book, in which, in fairness, very little happens other than it reaches out to the reader and hurts them to read. I can’t recommend it to people, frankly, because it is all just too horrible.  I can’t think of a better way to end this review however, than to use the same quote that Shute uses to open it with, from T S Eliots’ The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with whimper

Next time:  A (hopefully) more upbeat story of faith and reconstruction in A Canticle for Leibowitz

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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