The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

On the Beach takes places in Melbourne, Australia, and its nearby seaside suburb of Falmouth, between December, 1962, and August, 1963. A thirty-seven-day nuclear war has destroyed the Northern Hemisphere. The survivors south of the equator understand very little about this “war without a history” except that the deadly radiation released into the atmosphere by the hydrogen bombs is inevitably drifting their way. The war’s origins are particularly murky, but it is known that a minor power (probably either Albania or Egypt) ignited the conflagration. In the most widely circulated version of events, Tel Aviv was bombed (no one is sure by whom), and the Americans and British, assuming that Egypt was the aggressor, flew over Cairo in protest. The Egyptians retaliated by bombing Washington, D.C., and London in planes with Soviet markings, leading the United States and England to answer the attack by bombing the Soviet Union. China got involved as well, and soon the entire Northern Hemisphere was destroyed, leaving the population of the Southern Hemisphere to await the radiation’s arrival.

As the novel opens, the radiation is about nine months away from Melbourne, which will be the last major metropolis to succumb to radiation poisoning. In Falmouth, Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy, his wife, Mary, and their baby daughter, Jennifer, do their best to survive in a postwar world in which cars, abandoned for lack of gasoline, are pulled by horses, bicycles tow wagons through the streets, and aspects of life once taken for granted are gone forever. Holmes receives a new assignment as liaison officer to one of the...

(The entire section is 679 words.)