So occasionally we all read a bad book. And I’m talking about a really bad book. One you can’t finish. Generally that is my criteria; if I can’t finish a book without a real struggle, then it is bad. So I’ve decided to do some reviews of books that I find particularly bad. Does that mean they are objectively bad? No. Everyone has an opinion and someone out there may love the books I decide to bash. I just don’t. So instead of just giving it a bad review, which is obvious from the post title, I’ll take a look at what really makes it bad and what could have made it a little better.
*WARNING, HERE BE SPOILERS SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO READ THIS WORK*
For my first review I read Nevil Shute’s On The Beach. It is a post-apocalyptic work published in 1957 by the Australian Shute. Written during the opening stages of the Cold War, On The Beach follows a group of Australian and American naval officers and their friends and family as they struggle to survive in an Australia that is doomed to die by a massive radioactive cloud slowly drifting south after all the nations of the northern hemisphere are destroyed in nuclear war. An American naval officer captaining one of the few American submarines still in existence is tasked by the Australian Navy with investigating a mysterious radio signal coming from the supposedly destroyed Seattle. The Americans and Australians try to go about their normal lives while on shore despite the impending doom of radioactive fallout slowly creepy down on them.
So here is my biggest problem with the book; I felt no sense of urgency. Shute does an excellent job explaining, many times and in great detail, how everyone is going to die soon. But despite this obvious fate, there is almost no underlying tension about it. Sure, everyone knows it is coming and some are acting like they are preparing for it but the tension just isn’t there. Shute tells us all about it but fails to really show it. Now, I’m no show-don’t-tell nazi; sometimes when telling a story you have to tell something. I don’t go through a work and cross out every sentence of exposition and write in bold red ink, “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” But Shute missed a vital opportunity to really demonstrate people’s reactions and feelings at the end of the world. Everyone seems to be calm and collected about their fate. One character drinks heavily but you get the impression that it is merely her character not a result of her trying to suppress her fear of death. There is little real fear felt throughout the story, making the threat of death merely a plot device that feels cheap and forced. I wanted to feel real tension under the surface of all these people trying to live their daily lives knowing death was coming any day. Instead I just got a bunch of indifferent people talking about it.
Another issue, albeit more minor, is how the Americans are portrayed. Shute was Australian, clearly, but he didn’t seem to do his homework on Americans or how they speak. The American characters will often speak with Australian or English phrasings rather than American ones. For example, an American says, “I could use a swim on Saturday. It’s a long time since I had a swim.” (Shute 21) Now maybe Americans spoke a little more like than back in the fifties but I’ve read quite a few other works from that time period and before and the phrasing still struck me as particularly English or Australian and not American. It wouldn’t be an issue if the characters had more unique voices but I often found myself getting lost between characters who all sounded very similar.
Now I’ll be honest, I didn’t finish the book. I got about halfway through before anything other than exposition happened and I couldn’t take any more. It just gave me no interest. I felt no tension so I just couldn’t care. I did read the plot summary though and found that the American submarine finds nothing in Seattle and that the radio signal they were receiving was caused by a broken window sash blowing in the breeze. In the end every character either kills themselves or dies in the radioactive cloud. And I didn’t care a bit. There were no stakes. If everyone was going to die soon anyway what was the point of doing anything and so what was the point of the story? I didn’t need a sappy ending where the world is saved by the heroic Americans but something other than, “Yeah, everyone dies and nothing means anything,” would make me more willing to read the whole thing.
So if you want a good post-apocalyptic novel, look somewhere else. Check out Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon which is a similar story but done much better.
Or Maybe give On The Beach a shot. Who knows, you might like it more than me.
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Absolutely fantastic article. Thank you.