Literature / On the Beach

On the Beach is a 1957 novel by Nevil Shute that explores the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out all life in the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere was left untouched by the bombs, but not the fallout: each year more radioactive material is moved south by seasonal winds, and as the fallout accumulates, life slowly dies off, latitude by crawling latitude.

The story follows a group of people in Melbourne, Australia who go on about their lives as they wait for the inevitable end. With only a handful of years left, desperation is sliding into acceptance. When a Morse-like code is received and identified as coming all the way from Seattle, a stranded US submarine is sent to investigate this glimmer of hope - small and unlikely though it is.

The book was adapted into two movies by the same name, first in 1959 and then in 2000. The first movie has inspired the Strugatsky Brothers to write Far Rainbow in 1962.

Not to be confused with Beach Episode, or at least not what normally comes to mind when one thinks of that. It has nothing to do with bikini girls, and is anything but upbeat.

Tropes featured in the book or movie include:

  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Somewhat downplayed. The society never really disintegrates, but at the end, people were just taking stuff from stores. Also, hosting a lethal car race.
  • Beta Couple: Peter and Mary Holmes
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: The cyanide pills. Depending on personal convictions not everyone takes them, and some commit suicide in other ways.
  • Cyanide Pill: The Australian government provides cyanide pills to its citizens so that they need not die slowly of radiation poisoning.
  • Despair Event Horizon
  • Downer Ending: Obviously. Never once does the book's tone deviate from calm acceptance.
  • Exact Time to Failure: Averted — the estimate of when people in Melbourne will start dying of radiation poisoning turns out to be inaccurate.
  • Face Death with Dignity: In the best Australian way.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Moira, bordering on The Alcoholic.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Waltzing Matilda".
    • "Waltzing Matilda" is a song about suicide, which makes grim sense given that the story's theme is the entire world's (unintentional) suicide.
  • Just Before the End: The northern hemisphere is toast; the book narrates the Australian population's attempts to live out their last days in joy.
  • Lost In Transmission: In the book and in the first movie, the Australians hear garbled Morse Code radio messages from the United States (Seattle in the book, San Diego in the first movie), which turn out to be caused by a broken window frame striking a telegraph key. In the second movie, the submarine crew receive a garbled message every day at roughly the same time. They're tracking it to see if it's from a group of survivors, but it turns out to be a solar-powered laptop transmitting on its own. Doubles as an Apocalyptic Log.
  • Salt the Earth: The nuclear version.
  • Wrong Name Outburst: In the 1959 film, everyone's having fun frolicking outside, including Dwight. Then he accidentally uses the name of his dead wife when he is affectionately calling Moira an "outrageous liar". The mood becomes subdued very quickly after that.

Alternative Title(s): On The Beach