Nevil Shute Norway and “On the Beach”

tdih-aug06-hdLest we forget, the world has verged on apocalypse several times in recent history.  One could argue that for the young men of Europe living in 1914, or the Eastern European Jews in 1939, the apocalypse already came.  It’s human nature, perhaps, to turn away from unpleasant realities – God knows I’d rather enjoy my beer without Debbie Downer whispering in my ear.  But there are times we need to get serious – be adults about it.  Like when our President muses about “a major, major conflict with North Korea” in the next 100 days.

How do we conceptualize it?  Here’s my thought.  One of the great writers, thinkers, and humanists of the Twentieth Century was Nevil Shute Norway, an English aeronautics engineer who wrote under the name Nevil Shute.  He was a fascinating man, a cutting edge engineer who worked on the first air ships, founded an aircraft construction company, designed numerous aviation innovations, and was intimately familiar with that century’s history of war and disaster.  He also wrote, and was briefly famous for, a number of novels that capture the human dimensions of that era.  Treat yourself to “A Town Like Alice” or, one of my favorites “The Trustee from the Toolroom”.  Although something of a social conservative – he detested England’s post-war socialism – he had a particular respect for the individual – regardless of race or class – and was intent on understanding real world ways in which science and innovation could improve the human condition.

He was also a scientist and observer and he wrote the most compelling post-apocalyptic novel of that generation, “On the Beach“.  The novel is set in Australia, after a major nuclear exchange in the Northern Hemisphere, and takes place as people adjust to the coming inevitability of death from radiation as the global weather patterns swirl the radiation southward.  The novel is the act of a scientific imagination, a warning of what it might be like, and therefore has a particular immediacy.  How indeed would the unthinkable occur?  Nevil Shute Norway, who had seen it all, knew it could happen – he wanted us to think about it – he wanted us to save ourselves.  Keep this in mind the next time you hear some mainstream shill normalize Mr. Trump as if he is a legitimate President.


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