On the Beach, published late in Shute’s career, was his greatest critical and financial success in an already successful career. His clear, easy-to-read style, realistic story lines involving middle-class characters, and moral purpose made him one of England’s best-selling authors. His work often reflects his background as an aeronautical engineer, expressing an interest in technology and its effects on humanity. Although not a science-fiction writer, Shute did write “future history” in two other works, What Happened to the Corbetts (1939), which predicted England’s immediate future in World War II, and In the Wet (1953), which speculated about the future of the British Commonwealth in the 1980’s.
On the Beach can be associated with the dystopian movement in science fiction, which gained popularity after World War II as the progress of nuclear energy showed that science fiction was far more realistic than one imagined. One of the first works of fiction to dramatize effectively the drastic results of an all-out nuclear war, On the Beach, published in the midst of the Cold War, sent the powerful message that humanity will surely destroy itself if it continues on its present path and that, in nuclear war, all humanity will suffer for the folly of the few. Shute believed that technology had become too powerful for humanity to control, that irrational forces capable of starting war will always exist, and that war, once set in motion, takes on a life of its own and is difficult to end.
Shute’s bland characterization and lack of plot and sensationalism work to his advantage, adding poignancy to the plight of the doomed souls in this novel. Life continues in a deceptively normal fashion for these condemned beings, and the reader is disoriented until he or she realizes that everyone lives this way each day. Knowing they will die, people continue to plant their gardens and till their fields, as if life were forever.