Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Audiobook Review: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Book Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: It's slow at times, but still engaging as it delivers a tale of a group of survivors from World War III facing a certain end to the human race.

On the Beach is a post-nuclear war story from 1957 that follows some of the last people alive on Earth as they wait for the inevitable arrival of the radioactive fallout cloud that will result in their demise.  In the book, nuclear attacks had broken out among several of the world's nations, and Russia and China used bombs with cobalt casings in their strikes on each other.  This creates a deadly nuclear cloud that gets carried across the planet by global air currents. The book is set in Melbourne Australia which is one of the southern-most populated areas on the planet and among the last that will be impacted by the cloud.  They have received strange telegraph signals from the western United States and there is a theory that the radiation levels of the cloud will dissipate, so a nuclear powered submarine is sent north to investigate.  Meanwhile, the people in and around Melbourne try to live their lives knowing that only a few months may be left to them.

I've long been a fan of the World War III scenario story, but for some reason I never got around to reading this classic book (or seeing the movie version).  So I finally decided to rectify that with the audiobook version, and it delivers a grim yet engaging end of the world tale.  Imagine that the rest of the world has killed itself--Australia was not involved in the war--and you are awaiting the fallout of that conflict to take you as well.  That's basically the story that On the Beach gives us.  People waiting for an inevitable death with just the faintest of hopes that it may be averted.  Everybody goes about their business as if they will still be alive in another year, attending school, building gardens, planning families, but there is an undercurrent of futility in their actions.  And the submarine travels to the United States in hopes of finding survivors and some evidence that the fallout is dissipating, but all the while the clock keeps on ticking and the news remains grim.

A note that this book can be quite slow at times, especially when it focuses on the interpersonal lives of the survivors.  But I never found it boring or felt like I was slogging through it, though I did wish it would pick up the pace at times.  The people face their fate with a lack of panic and a very British stiff-upper-lip, which makes it feel stilted at times and doesn't necessarily fit with our perception of the Australians as self-sure mavericks, though that image has plenty of Hollywood taint to it.  And the point of the book really hits home at the end as the people make their final decisions on how to face the impending doom.  So even if you find yourself struggling midway through the book, stick with it because it delivers a gut-wrenching ending.  This one should be required reading for any and all politicians involved with military decisions.

The audiobook version is read by Simon Prebble who does an excellent job with the narration and with distinguishing the voices of the different characters.  He has a very British accent which reinforces the stiff-upper-lip tendency of many of the characters.  And again, that seems in contrast to what we expect from the Australian population.  But he does throw in a Crocodile Dundee accent on one of the characters, so I assume I am biased by Hollywood stereotypes in thinking everybody in the country talks that way.  Essentially, Prebble gives us an excellent reading of an excellent book that should be required reading for sci fi fans and budding politicians alike.

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