On The Beach by Nevil Shute – A Review

Nevil Shute’s classic post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach is an unemotional look at the aftermath of a worldwide nuclear war.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Released July 1, 1957
Published by Vintage International
Goodreads | Amazon

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach officially wins the award for the most disappointing book that I’ve ever read.

I’ve said a million times that post-apocalyptic fiction is my favorite genre. Books like The Road, Station Eleven, and The Stand always give me chills.

On the Beach is a well-known classic of the genre. I’m honestly shocked that it took me so long to finally read it.

The novel was written after Nevil Shute, both an author and aeronautical engineer, moved from the U.K. to Australia. Set a year after a devastating worldwide nuclear war, a group of survivors in Melbourne, Australia live out their final days as a cloud of fatal radiation spreads across the Earth.

The characters deal with their impending demise in quite different ways. A young couple, Lieutenant Peter Holmes and his wife Mary, make plans for a garden; US Commander Dwight Towers attends to his naval duties, despite the US Navy no longer existing; Moria Davidson spends much of her time drinking; Professor John Osborne fulfills his lifelong desire to drive a racecar.

Shute’s book is very much a character-driven novel as opposed to a plot-driven one. There’s actually very little plot. We follow these characters as they attempt to live their lives as much as they are able to in what little time they have left. Meanwhile, the nuclear apocalypse that has taken place and destroyed the world is little more than an afterthought and plot device.

Nevil Shute
Author Nevil Shute

I found the novel dreadfully boring, and the characters had so little emotion that I was unable to care about them. The entire book felt detached to me. I had gotten my hopes up based on seeing how much praise the book had received. Here’s a paragraph from the book’s Wikipedia page, just to give you an idea:

Historian David McCullough, writing for The New York Times, called On the Beach “the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “the most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off.” Daily Telegraph called it “Shute’s most considerable achievement”, and The Times stated that it is “the most evocative novel on the aftermath of a nuclear war.” The Guardian commented that “fictions such as On the Beach played an important role in raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink.” The Los Angeles Times described the novel as “timely and ironic… an indelibly sad ending that leaves you tearful and disturbed”, and The Economist called it “still incredibly moving after nearly half a century.”

My frustration grew as I read further into the novel. The main reason for this was Shute’s habit of building up an event that’s about to happen and then skipping over it entirely. For example, Commander Towers leads his submarine on a tour of the western coast of the U.S. up to Seattle, where strange radio signals have been detected. No one should have been able to survive in North America. Shute writes about the preparations for the journey, but then literally skips most of the trip until they get to Seattle. We get a brief look at one building in the city, where the radio tower is, and then they’re back in Australia. There’s more time spent on the characters drinking and fixing a race car than on the journey to America or on anything having to do with the apocalypse.

As I already mentioned, this is a character-driven story, so in a way I understand it. However, the characters are so flat that there needed to be some sort of plot to make up for it, and there wasn’t.

One aspect of the characters that I found hard to fathom was their unnatural calmness. They’re the last people in the world, and no one seems all that upset. There’s no rioting in the streets, hardly any crying, and people seem to just not care. I found it extremely unrealistic.

The science in this book is far from realistic, but I can’t hold that against it. Nuclear science and radiation weren’t fully understood in the 1950s when this book was written.

There are so many better post-apocalyptic novels out there, so I can’t recommend this one. I was so sad to discover how plain this novel was and how unemotional the writing felt. There have been two films made based on On the Beach, and I might give those a try, but as for the novel, save your time and read something else.

The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey – A Review

The Book of Koli (Rampart Trilogy #1) by M.R. Carey
Science Fiction | Post-Apocalyptic
Published by Orbit
Released 14 April 2020
Goodreads | Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As someone whose favorite genre is post-apocalyptic, I have very high standards for it. Few books reach the god-tier of the genre, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand. So many new post-apocalyptic books fall into the trap of cliches and over-used scenarios. To my absolute delight, M. R. Carey’s The Book of Koli, exceeding my expectations. While not in the god-tier category, it’s a contribution to the genre and a book that I can’t stop recommending.

The Book of Koli follows a teenage boy named Koli who lives in Mythen Rood, a small, walled city in Britain. The outside world is hostile: humanity has destroyed itself in the Unfinished War, and genetically-engineered trees have become violent. While there are other villages, they are too far apart for easy communication and trade, so to the people of Mythen Rood, they are essentially alone.

In Mythen Rood, the community is controlled by Ramparts, people who have been able to speak to ancient technology. Technology is seen as sacred due to both its rareness and the lack of knowledge about it. Everyone in the village has an opportunity to test their ability to “wake” a piece of technology to become a Rampart, but almost everyone walks away disappointed.

Koli wants more than anything to be a Rampart, but his dreams are dashed when he fails to wake any technology. However, he doesn’t give up and makes a series of questionable and brave choices to try again. As a consequence, he finds himself exiled from Mythen Rood. People in the village rarely leave the safety of the walls, so everything is new to Koli. He’s forced to use his own wits and abilities to survive in a very dangerous world.

Technology versus humanity is an old trope in post-apocalyptic and science fiction literature, but M.R. Carey puts a unique spin on it, making it feel fresh. More than anything, The Book of Koli is about constructs of society, blind faith, and corruptibility.

One aspect of this book that I wasn’t crazy over was that the trees had been bred to walk and consume flesh. It was too outlandish for me, but not out of bounds for science fiction. It’s a personal preference that I didn’t enjoy this element, so for many of you, it might not be an issue. Fortunately, that part of the book is a background element that provides life to the setting but doesn’t influence much else.

I was fascinated by the societies made by the remnants of humanity. While Mythen Rood is the focus of much of this first book of the Rampart Trilogy, we also meet a large group of people living in a tunnel and worshiping their messiah, Senlas. In both instances, the communities have almost blind faith in their leadership, whether that’s a group of technology-baring politicians and a religious prophet.

The people in the world are very isolated from one another, and as a result, there’s very little genetic diversity. Koli comes to realize the dangers of this with the help of his friend Ursula, a traveling doctor who he unexpectedly runs into outside of Mythen Rood’s gates. As a result of both a dwindling population and reduced gene pool, people are no longer successfully having children. Communities are at constant risk of dying off, and Koli wants to do something about it. From the ending of The Book of Koli, the second book in this trilogy will focus more on Koli’s efforts to do just that.

The first several chapters of this book were difficult to read due to Koli’s vernacular. People in his world are poorly educated in reading and writing, and it shows in the book, which is in the format of a diary written by Koli. One of the first examples I found in the book was in the first chapter: “Judging is what them that listen does for them that tell.” Sentence structure, misspellings, and bizarre wording can make parts of this book hard to read. There were a few moments early on when I considered DNF-ing it due to this element. I’m very happy that I stuck with it, however, because eventually you stop noticing it as much and the story takes off.

Despite Koli being 15 at the start of the book, I would not call this a young adult novel, although I have seen it classified as such. It reads as adult science fiction and deals with mature ideas. While there’s no explicit or graphic scenes, this is a pretty dark novel that I would definitely catalogue as adult fiction.

The Book of Koli is meant to be read as a trilogy, not as individual books. While there is an “end” to this first book, it’s really just setting up the next two novels in the series. Usually, I like each book in a series being their own self-contained story, but it didn’t bother me so much in this instance. I was incredibly intrigued and do want to read the rest of the story, and readers won’t have to wait for the next books. The publisher’s plan for the trilogy is to release all three books within 10 months. As someone who has absolutely no patience, I’m thrilled that they’re publishing the books as quickly as they are.

If you like post-apocalyptic stories or stories that involve nature trying to tear down humanity, then I very much recommend The Book of Koli. I’m eagerly waiting to read the second installation, The Trials of Koli, which is already out, along with the forthcoming final book in the trilogy, The Fall of Koli. M. R. Carey has created a unique world that asks us hard questions about society, and it’s very much worth the read.

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