I read Nevil Shute’s 1957 bestseller On the Beach in the early days of the pandemic. It seemed appropriate to the times. In the novel, Australia is a remote holdout against global collapse. The major and minor powers of the Northern Hemisphere have destroyed each other in 37 days of mutual nuclear attack. Now, particles of atomic dust released in the ‘short war’ creep below the equator, towards Australia’s southern coastline and Melbourne, where the novel is set.
Disaster in Shute’s world is both perilously close and unimaginably distant. The radioactive cloud inching towards Melbourne is imperceptible except to advanced instruments. Only in images of empty streets in New York, Paris and London does anything like the full horror of the mass end of human life dawn on the characters or the reader. Similarly, in March 2020, no-one had forgotten the smoky haze that clung to the air in Melbourne for much of the previous summer, but the fires themselves were invisible to those of us in the city, and hazard was relayed largely by radio reports and online air-quality monitors. The early costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, were confined to a far horizon, while Australia carried on, tense, fearful, but without many dead, not yet.
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