Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Spoiler: Everybody Dies

It's been a while since we last looked at a good, old-fashioned apocalypse. Nevil Shute's famous On the Beach (published 1957) is more worthy of that name than most since, as is well-known, and my apologies if you didn't know it, everybody dies at the end. It is a book which is quietly, stiff-upper-lip-ly, affectingly, utterly without hope.

This is the first edition:

The book starts off in the year following a third world war that has gone nuclear. Massive amounts of fallout have wiped out all life in the Northern Hemisphere, and the deadly clouds are now drifting irrevocably southwards, killing everything. Southern Australia is now chock-full of refugees, including the remnants of the British military, and the crew of a single surviving US Navy submarine.

Then a Morse code signal from the continental United States is received, and the American sub is sent to investigate. What happens next I will not spoil, in case you haven't read it yet. Much of the story also concentrates on the relationships between a number of central characters, including the submarine's American captain and his alcoholic Australian girlfriend, and an Australian sailor, his wife and young baby, all of whom are faced with inevitable extinction.

It's an odd thing to say, but to someone brought up on a diet of British and American ends-of-the-world, it's pleasing for an Australian reader to see the planet's last lights going out in Melbourne. Shute was English by birth, but became an Australian after World War II, and set many of his later works in this country. None had more impact than On the Beach, though, with some even attributing the passing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 to the American public's horrified response to the book.

Until recently, it was available from the erratic House of Stratus.

In October, though, it and a startling 22 other Shute books are being brought back into print by Vintage Classics UK. These editions have attractive, sedate covers: you wouldn't even know that was a mushroom cloud at first glance. I like the way it picks up the colours of that first edition, too, with the green sky and red dress.

For a mainstream publisher to resurrect 23 books by a mostly neglected writer at once is quite a vote of confidence: Vintage don't even keep most of Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen or William Faulkner in print. I would be surprised if all the projected titles actually appear in October.

On the Beach was successfully filmed, adding to its impact, though Ava Gardner's famously scathing remark that Melbourne was "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world" seems to have been invented by a journalist. The film produced a the usual tie-in edition... well as pointing the way for publisher Pan's changing-but-unchanging cover designs over the following decades.

It was only when Pan started to churn out muscular, blokey adventure stories in the 1980s that they decided to ditch the girly romantic element of the cover and just focus on the hardware.

As a book that's been through a huge number of editions, it has a huge number of other covers to match...

Shute strayed into science-fiction on a couple of other occasions, depending on your definitions. No Highway predicted the "metal fatigue" which would lead to a number of aircraft crashes, while What Happened to the Corbetts is one of those novels written in the lead-up to World War II that project forward into the war itself (see also Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies).


Ian Shimkoviak said...

jeez. all of these covers look so awful I would never be intrigued to read the book. Bummer.

JRSM said...

Not a lot of inspiration on show, is there? Mushroom cloud--check. Embracing couple--check. Submarine--check. Beach--check.

Steerforth said...

I've only seen the film and was surprised that it was actually filmed in Australia as there seem to be so many dodgy accents (a la Mrs Miniver).

Marc said...

I like the world destruction collection you have going (and have been unaware of the majority of what you've covered). I don't think you've addressed my favorite of the genre yet, though: M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud. I recently picked up The City's End by Max Page: not fiction, and I haven't read it yet, but it looks fun and seems like it deserves a spot on your doomsday shelf, virtual and non.

downtown guy said...

I think I'll check when I get home to see which edition I read. I honestly can't remember right now. This book really got to me - I normally put one down and pick up another in nearly the same motion, but after On the Beach I had to get out of the house and shake some of it off before I could read anything else.

JRSM said...

Steerforth: Australian accents seem to be the bane of non-Australian actors. There was a documentary on TV not that long ago which basically made the claim that the Australian "mouth" is quite lazy, with the tongue held relaxed, so it's a lot easier for Australians to learn foreign accents than it is for British and American actors (who have more "rigid" tongue/mouth patterns when speaking) to unlearn their own habits enough to do a convincing Australian accednt.

Marc: I have Shiel's book, but haven't yet read it--it looks very promising though (and has the courage to actually wipe out the world population, unlike Conan Doyle's similar 'The Poison Belt'). 'The City's End' is completely new to me, but looks just like my cup of tea--thanks for pointing me at it!

Downtown Guy: I know exactly what you mean--it's unusual in having the "courage" to take its starting idea through to its awful conclusion, without any magic fixes or last-minute saviours.

downtown guy said...

The only other one that goes all the way with it that I can think of is Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald. And it's not nearly as good a book.

JRSM said...

'Level 7' is more satirical, isn't it, with no real characters for you to latch on to.

Will said...

This was one of the required texts in my 10th grade (so about 14 years old) English class. I was totally ready for the apocalypse.

Apparently as reassurance for the paranoid stoners, my school -- which also had a giant smoke stack -- left the bomb shelter unlocked at all times.

JRSM said...

As someone with a bit of a leaning to wards what you might call "nuclear kitsch", I'm so envious that you had a bomb shelter. Was it the sort of place you could have happily waited in while the fallout fell?

downtown guy said...

No, I didn't think it was. Level 7, I mean. It focused pretty closely on one or two characters.