Sunday, January 6, 2019

Fiction as Science: The Example of On the Beach

Fiction can be science. This is a point that I made in my recently-released book Scientifically Thinking: Sometimes fiction has a structure similar to scientific research. The novelist sets up an experiment and runs it to test a hypothesis, just like a scientist would, only the experiment takes place in a fictional mind-space rather than in the lab or field.

In 1957, the world was on the cusp of nuclear annihilation, and nobody knew what might happen next, and what the consequences of nuclear war might be. Everyone knew there would be a lot of radiation, but nobody knew how much or what the physiological effects on humans or any other species might be.

Into this milieu of peril came Nevil Shute’s famous novel On the Beach, in which the entire Northern Hemisphere had been destroyed by nuclear war. The Southern Hemisphere, including Australia where the novel is set, did not participate. And yet the radiation crept inexorably down from the north. On the southern shore of Australia, even as the radiation destroyed northern Australia, life continued almost as before. The electric trains still ran, since Australia had its own low-quality coal for power plants, but there was no gasoline, so people rigged up their cars to be drawn by horses. The novel was set in 1964, which was the future, but near enough so that the readers could not feel distant from it.

This novel was made into a famous 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. Only a really important movie could have gotten this line-up.

It is an amazing movie, except that almost the only soundtrack was Waltzing Matilda over and over and over. But even here the movie was well done. Drunken fishermen were singing the song out of tune, but right at a dramatic moment when Dwight and Moira had to confront their doomed love for one another, the orchestra played the tune in perfect and disturbing harmony.

Into this Australian scenario comes an American submarine that just happened to be in the south when the war struck. Toward the end, Commander Dwight Towers realized that he and his crew were the only Americans still alive in the world. He was the only American with any authority. When he realizes this (page 164 of Signet edition), “He said wearily, ‘I guess the United States is me, right now. I’m thinking of running for President.’”

Nevil Shute set up the fictional experiment, and controlled the variables that he knew would make the results of the experiment too difficult to interpret.

  • Shute made the dying silent and without destruction. If the novel was filled with explosions and carnage, it would just be confusing. But Shute had the radiation approaching invisibly. The atmospheric circulation of the Northern Hemisphere is almost entirely separate from the Southern, but not quite. The air is almost still right where the sun is straight overhead, but this latitude of stillness moves north and south with the seasons, causing the atmosphere of the North to mix with that of the South in a gradual and totally consistent manner. Every Northern Hemisphere city that the submarine crew saw through their periscope during a reconnaissance mission was nearly intact except for the total absence of people.
  • Shute made it easy for people to choose a painless end to their lives. The Australians also chose to end their lives, once they knew death was inevitable, by taking poison pills, for which they lined up at health dispensaries. For the sake of simplifying the experiment, Shute made up a poison that makes you painlessly fall asleep forever. I am not aware that any such poison exists.

Therefore the novel can focus clearly on the central questions, rather than being distracted by mayhem.

One question this novel addresses is this: what would people do if life seemed utterly normal, except that they knew that death was coming, and they knew almost exactly when it would arrive and how it would happen?

  • One hypothesis is that people would go wild and plunder one another and establish warring states. Maybe this is, in fact, what Americans would do, with our tradition of taking whatever we want for ourselves and our worship of guns. One might imagine that a lot of men would go wild and take as many women as they could get, and plunder the houses of anyone with no, or fewer, guns.
  • But another hypothesis is that people would continue on with their daily lives as long as possible. This is what the Australians did and what countries with a greater sense of social identity would do. I imagine that this is what would happen in, say, Finland. The people continued their jobs, their families, their marriages just as before. This is also what Americans did during the Cold War: they continued their daily lives.

Why would a society of people continue with their normal lives even as death approaches? Here are two possible reasons.

  • A normal life was their only sense of comfort and happiness.
  • A normal life allowed them to fantasize that it wasn’t really happening. In this novel, the American submarine commander Towers has a romance with a young Australian woman (Moira Davidson), but he is chaste with her since he considers himself still married to his wife in Connecticut, even though she must be dead. Towers even bought presents to take home to his wife and children, whom he knew yet denied were dead. The wife of the Australian naval officer put in a garden for the next year that she pretended to believe would still come. This might be the most chilling aspect of the novel: to see people living in their fantasy worlds.

In the end, everyone dies doing what they loved best. One seaman, when the submarine came to his hometown, jumped ship and spent his last day fishing in his own boat. Another, who had a race car, was willing to die during a dangerous race, but he won the championship; then took his poison pills while sitting in his race-car (in the book; in the movie, he killed himself with carbon monoxide). The Australian officer dies in bed with his wife. Moira dies as she watches Dwight sink his submarine offshore. They all died, except Dwight and Moira, with smiles on their faces.

Another question that this novel addresses: What is your responsibility to alleviate the inevitable suffering for those who cannot understand it? The Australian officer tells his wife she may have to kill their baby rather than let it suffer if they die first. At first she angrily insists that this is murder, but eventually decides it is mercy.

Yet another question: Is it fair the Southern Hemisphere should suffer from the fallout of what the Northern Hemisphere has done? All the characters struggle with this constantly, though only once in a while blurting it out.

I hope we are never in a position to find out what we would do if the end of the world was coming inevitably, gradually, and at a time we knew several months in advance. I hope that the real experiment is never done. Is it possible that this novel, and the movie made from it, forced people to confront the reality of the nuclear threat and keep it from actually happening?

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