Please click on the link below for my story ‘House on Fire’ published by ‘East of the Web’ (UK)
By Brian Martin
Responding to my post about ‘On The Beach”
Thanks for your reflections on On the Beach. They greatly interested me because, like you, I recently reread the book and watched the film. That was in late 2020 for my book Truth Tactics (free at https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/21tt/), one chapter of which is a reflection on sources of information that affected my understanding of the effects of nuclear war.
You were surprised that in the book and film, there were no riots or civil unrest. Actually, studies of disasters show most people behave rationally.
Nevil Shute’s scenario was explosion of cobalt bombs, which would have caused death by radiation with relatively little physical destruction, and certainly no damage far from the explosions. So that aspect is realistic. What is unrealistic is the whole scenario, because cobalt bombs were never built and, even if they had been, the radiation wouldn’t have gradually moved south as in Shute’s novel.
For those with a great interest in On the Beach, I append my notes on both the novel and the film, and you can read what I say about it in Truth Tactics.
Nevil Shute, On the Beach (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1957)
Aside from the scenario, this novel is about people’s ordinary lives. It’s set in Melbourne in 1963, in the aftermath of a global nuclear war in the northern hemisphere in which thousands of cobalt bombs are used, leading to massive radioactive contamination of the atmosphere and land, killing everyone in the northern hemisphere. Gradually the radioactivity is moving south, killing everyone in its path. Melbourne is the largest city in the southernmost parts of the world. The premise is that everyone knows, or should know, that they are all going to die within a few months.
The narrative follows a small number of individuals. Peter Holmes is an Australian naval lieutenant-commander. He and his wife Mary have a baby daughter, Jennifer. They have a friend, Moira, a 24-year-old who drinks heavily. Dwight Towers is the captain of a US nuclear submarine that was at sea and avoided immediate death. Dwight’s wife Sharon and their two daughters were in Connecticut and hence presumed dead. John Osborne is a scientist.
The story revolves around two angles. One is two trips by the sub, one to northern Australia, to look for life, and the other to the west coast of North America, with the same aim. Shute provides lots of detail about the trips, much of it through the eyes of Dwight, Peter and John, sometimes via their briefings with senior figures.
There’s a scientist, Jorgenson, not introduced as a character, who says, contrary to other scientific opinion, that the radiation levels may be declining at high latitudes. [He is a precursor of present-day scientist dissidents.] In terms of the plot, Jorgenson provides a rationale for the sub trip to North America.
Back home, Peter and Mary pursue domestic and social activities. They invite Moira to join them and divert Dwight from his sorrow, leading to a romantic relationship between Moira and Dwight.
Several of the characters deny reality in various ways. Mary makes all sorts of plans for a garden and outdoor furniture, as if they will be alive to enjoy them. Similarly, various neighbours make plans as if they are going to be around. Dwight seemingly cannot accept that his family is dead, and buys gifts for them all. Initially Moira cannot understand this, but then decides to humour Dwight’s delusion. She also accepts that Dwight is not ready for anything more than friendship given his commitment to his (late) wife Sharon. This relationship between Moira and Dwight provides the main emotional anchor for the book.
Around them, many activities are shutting down. Some people keep working, and it’s convenient for the plot that electricity and food remain available. People stop caring about being paid; shops don’t worry about payment.
Meanwhile, John has a passion for car racing, having purchased a Ferrari. He and others scrounge petrol (which is scarce) and join in racing. John, though inexperienced, comes second in a preliminary race, and wins the Grand Prix. Many drivers are killed or injured, seemingly not caring much about the risks because they are going to die anyway.
Chemists provide tablets for ending one’s life peacefully, to avoid dying from radiation poisoning. Mary is initially horrified at killing their daughter but after they all come down with radiation sickness, she asks Peter to help Jennifer die. Peter, who is sick but could live another week or so, decides to die along with Mary.
John sees his mother die. He decides to take a tablet while sitting in his racing car.
Dwight, who has become commander of the US Navy (a total of two ships by this time) decides to scuttle his sub and go down with it. He refuses Moira’s request to join him. She drives to the coast where she can see the sub one more time, and takes a tablet.
The ending of the novel is the most powerful part of the book. The end of human life on earth, portrayed via the end of the lives of ordinary people in such ordinary ways, is moving.
Much of the rest of the novel is fairly pedestrian, especially the details of the submarine trips and the car-racing. Aside from the Moira-Dwight romance, which is very slow-moving, not much happens. The driver behind the novel is the knowledge that everyone will die. Most of the characters keep doing ordinary things, except for the car-racers. Due to her care for Dwight, Moira seems to reform from being an alcoholic to taking a shorthand and typing class. Dwight remains attached to his naval duties to the end, despite their rationale having been removed.
Shute has the characters often smoking and drinking.
On the beach, film, 1959, directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, screenplay by John Paxton, with Gregory Peck (Dwight), Ava Gardner (Moira), Fred Astaire (John, called Julian in the film), Anthony Perkins (Peter) and Donna Anderson (Mary), 129m, black and white
The film follows the novel to a large degree, with some differences.
• The film opens in January 1964, a year later than in the novel.
• The first sub trip is omitted.
• In the sub trip to San Francisco, a sailor leaves unauthorised and swims to shore, where he stays. Then the sub goes to San Diego where a sailor, in protective gear, finds the source of the mysterious messages to be a coke bottle leaning on the Morse code tapper, being lifted and let down by movements of a window shade pull. The sailor’s run/walk to find this apparatus is an extended scene.
• There is only one race, won by Julian.
• The cause of the war is not explained in the film, nor are cobalt bombs mentioned. Nothing is said about the plausibility of the radiation gradually moving south in either the book or the film.
• The film has more moralising about the stupidity of humans to make destructive weapons. Julian feels responsible since he participated in the bomb making; I don’t remember John having any direct role in bomb making.
• Julian ends his life sitting in his racing car, not by taking a tablet but by gassing himself. The scene about him seeing his mother is omitted.
• Dwight expresses his love for Moira. It is implied that their love is consummated, unlike in the novel. In the novel, a key romantic theme is that Moira is reformed by her love and respect for Dwight, including accepting that he will remain committed to his wife. This is turned into a more traditional love story in the film.
• Many of the delusions are left out: Mary’s, the extent of Dwight’s, etc.
• Gregory Peck (43) and Ava Gardner (37) are older than the characters Dwight (33) and Moira (24) in the novel.
• “Waltzing Matilda” is played throughout the film (at least the Australian scenes, which are the majority), in a delightful number of variations.
• Towards the end, there’s a scene of a Salvation Army rally; later, the same scene is shown, deserted of people. None of this is in the book.
• While the sub is in San Francisco harbour, Dwight looks at the city for an extended period. It’s intact but devoid of people or activity. The other sailors also have a look. This was only covered indirectly in the novel, via discussions after returning.
• As in the novel, Dwight chooses duty over love, taking the sub to sea to be scuttled. Likewise, Moira is on the coast watching, but we don’t see her taking a tablet.
• There’s a scene showing dispensing of suicide tablets to a queue of people a block long. This wasn’t in the novel, where it was the local chemist who provided the tablets.
• As in the novel, Mary has great trouble accepting that their lives will end, but does at the end. Peter’s decision to end his life along with Mary’s and Jennifer’s — in the novel he had perhaps another week to live, but hid this from Mary — is not articulated.
• The role of Jorgenson is the same: a reason for the sub trip to the north.
• In the novel, Jennifer would have to be euthanised by injection. In the film, the implication is that she would get a tablet like adults.
I recently re read Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptical novel On the Beach, and watched the 1959 movie of the same name. I last read the book 50 years ago. The story details the responses of a diverse set of characters living in Melbourne as deadly radiation from a northern hemisphere nuclear war approaches – with death the only plausible scenario.
At the time of its publication during the cold war the novel was considered ground-breaking and had quite an impact. It was accessible literature and led many people to consider the dangers of a nuclear war for the first time.
Is the book still relevant?
On one level, yes. The war in Ukraine has put the very real possibility of a nuclear confrontation back on the agenda. It has forced us to look again at the atomic threat after it had slipped out of sight. The apparent end of the cold war, the climate crisis, the relative stability of the world economy over the last 30 years and the affluence of western populations led us to downplay nuclear war. Now we face the return of the repressed, so to speak.
On the other hand, the book – and certainly the film – feel a little dated now. The characters are very restrained in that cliched 1950s mode. There are no riots or social unrest, as one might expect in a post disaster world. By and large everybody behaves pretty decently under the circumstances. They are all rather stoic. And we don’t read about or see much in the way of physical destruction that such a war must surely bring. This is especially true of the film. In the book we do learn about the deaths of the characters. We read about how and when they die. If we have invested in them at all, we feel moved and saddened. In the film we see no destruction and no deaths. It is implied but not shown. It seemed to me that a Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck ( as a submarine captain) could not allow itself to confront the likely reality of a nuclear war head on, but only by allusion. Compare this with Threads (UK) or The Day After (US), which do show us, to some degree, the inevitable destruction and suffering.
In On the Beach, it is the idea of war and death that haunts. Today we want to see and experience a more dramatic and confrontational aesthetic. We tend to think that the latter is more realistic. I think that it not so much a matter of realism but of aesthetic expectation. The impact of a novel or film depends a great deal on what the audience brings to it. On the Beach was effective in its day. Less so now. Perhaps we now need a new way to keep us on our toes. To remind and warn us that nuclear war and annihilation remain possible.
I was born in the 50s. I bloomed in the 60s and 70s. Now I feel like a wilted flower. The times they are a changing … but not for the better. I fear a new dark ages. A nuclear winter. A climate catastrophe. Helter skelter…. Down we go…
On The Beach reminds us of the horror we are capable of. Of what is possible.
When I was younger, I felt I could act and help to ‘save the world’. Now I feel powerless.
So it goes…
 A line repeated over and over in Kurt Vonegut’s Slaughter House Five, a book based in part on the WW2 bombing of Dresden.
‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine… my sins my own, they belong to me.’ Patti Smith
I know that for many people Easter is a time that marks the salvation of humankind. I don’t believe in salvation anymore. I don’t mean Christian style salvation alone. I mean any kind of salvation.
The word ‘anymore’ above is telling…
Because once I think I did believe…
As a young man I was very much taken by the idea that the late 1960s movements could bring a new social order. I mean Hippies and Woodstock and Jefferson Airplane and…
love, love love… love is all you need…
That morphed into New Left thinking, Marxism and Cultural Studies. For those that are interested I published quite a lot under the banner of Cultural Studies.
One thing that Christianity, Marxism, and other salvation narratives have in common is a totalising vison. By this I mean, they seek to explain everything under one philosophical rubric. This leads to number of problems in my view:
- Not everything can be explained by one theory. (In this context Faith is not a valid explanation).
- To claim that one theory will explain everything is to ride roughshod over ‘reality’ and impose theory on the world instead of allowing theory to be derived from piecemeal, situational observation of our world.
- Suggesting that one theory explains all things tends towards authoritarianism, that is ‘I’ have the right theory and ‘you’ are wrong.
- Theory should be situational and provisional. We can seek to explain this or that phenomenon in context at this time, but not ‘everything, everywhere, anytime.’
Concretely, Christianity and Marxism, prime examples of ‘totalising metanarratives’ (stories that seek to explain everything). Both have sought liberation in one way or another and both have spawned authoritarian violence. Marxism has some useful context specific things to say about capitalism and class, but it does not and cannot explain everything. States that have made Marxism their guiding ideology have been authoritarian. Same for Christianity. I accept that many people are believers and find salvation through Christianity. Fine if that’s your thing, it’s not mine. But it is not valid to seek to impose this on others. In the name of Christ people have been tortured and massacred because of their ‘wrong’ beliefs. For example, the Spanish Inquisition; the Crusaders; the troubles in Northern Ireland; attacks on abortion clinics; etc, etc …
And if as a Christian you think I am singling you out, I also mean Islam and Judaism and Communism and one-party state socialism; and even authoritarian environmental activism or the intolerance displayed by some in the domain of gender, sexuality, and race.
In short, I’ve given up on salvation. I don’t believe in any totalising philosophy. Belief is a dangerous thing. I value not-believing (See my earlier post on the value of non-believing).
None of this means that we can’t try to make our world a better place (putting aside for a moment what ‘better’ may mean, which is a matter of our values). I am not supporting nihilism or in-action. We can (and in my view should) adopt a piecemeal, experimental, and pragmatic view by which we try out ideas, values, and policies to see if they work for us or not. We can have open pluralistic discussion about theory, ideas, beliefs, values etc. We won’t always agree… but we can talk and try and understand each other’s point of view. Instead of knowing the ‘truth’ we adopt an experimental, conversational and experiential view on life, both personal and political (and yes, the personal is political).
I have spent a lifetime reading and writing about theory. Nowadays I write fiction. On the whole fiction does not totalise but places people and their motivations in a specific concrete world. People in fiction, at its best anyway, are particular in their motivations and contexts.
For the philosophically inclined I would refer you to the work of Richard Rorty and his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity.
Lucy watched the peeling paint shower like pale yellow snowflakes from the inside of her bedroom door as it vibrated from an intentional violence. He could not have meant what he had done. Once the black cloud had lifted, as it always did, he would come to his senses and beg mum for forgiveness. Full of remorse, he would say, ‘I am so sorry, Anna, darling, it will never happen again’ and ‘Hey, Lucy girl, here’s a twenty, go and buy yourself something’. At thirteen, she would never say no to cash. That was the way it was. He got pissed; he acted stupid; he slept it off.
Lucy wondered if the chaos had been begun the day dad had been shipped out to Afghanistan; or perhaps it started when grandad took off around the world; or maybe it was her fault and she had done something terribly, terribly, wrong to provoke his anger?
Yesterday the phone rang and Lucy had rushed down the sun-starved hallway from her bedroom.
‘Hello, Lucy, is your dad there?’ said grandma Grace.
She ventured into the kitchen to gather him in. He was listening to the news and drinking tea.
‘Hey, dad, gran is on the phone,’ she said.
He walked unenthusiastically down the hallway towards the front room, with Lucy trailing in his wake. Grandma Grace’s muffled voice was calm, though firm, while dad stared through the picture window at the escarpment beyond.
‘For Christ’s sake, alright, I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘But don’t blame me if it all goes pear shaped, which it will.’
‘Hey dad, what’s happening? Is grandma alright?’ said Lucy, her tone both tender and inquisitive.
‘She’s fine,’ he said, and rolled his eyes.
‘Oh, come on dad, tell me.’
‘Your grandma is bringing your bloody grandfather over to Sunday lunch, worse luck.’
‘Who d’you mean?’
‘Wow, my grandad Frank. I’ve never met him.’
‘He just took bloody pictures, you know. That’s a thousand and one ways to tell lies if you ask me. You know, all the time I was in Afghanistan I never let on that the famous war photographer Frank Woods was my father. Well he isn’t as far as I’m concerned.’
‘Stuff him,’ he said. ‘He can go to hell.’
Mum had lavished time and attention on preparing Sunday dinner: roast beef with potatoes, honey-glazed carrots, Brussel sprouts and green peas, accompanied by rivers of thick meaty gravy; instead of the Mediterranean fish and vegetables which she preferred to cook. Mum was out to please. Lucy scrutinised the statue of a man sitting opposite her. Grandad’s silver hair shone in the sunlight and his wrinkles ran like desert tracks across his suntanned face, while the Hawaiian shirt, red flowers on a white background, did not look out of place on him, as such a garment so often does on older men, since he carried it well on his slim, fit-looking body.
‘My, doesn’t this smell champion,’ said grandma. ‘Thank you so much, Anna.’
‘You’re welcome. We want you to have a wonderful day, don’t we, Charlie?’
Grandma moved to fill the silence.
‘So, how’s your week been, Anna?
‘Oh, same old, same old. Shopping, tidying, cleaning. Oh, but I did buy a new blender, it’s fantastic, I’ll show you later.’
Dad glanced up from his plate.
‘How much did that cost?’
‘We needed it, Charlie. The old one is broken.’
‘I’m hungry,’ said Lucy.
Mum clasped her hands and the others followed suit, except dad.
‘Dear Lord, bless this food we are about to eat. Bless this family and keep us safe.’
‘Well, I’ll be buggered,’ said dad. ‘Have you joined the army of Christ, Frank?
‘Isn’t it wonderful to be together as a family,’ said grandma.
‘So, what do you say, Frank? Weren’t you the guy who always said, dumb arse Christians, war killed off the God dream for me.’
‘When in Rome,’ said grandad.
‘Well, if war didn’t kill off the Almighty for Frank here, it certainly did for me.’
‘Can we just move on, please?’ said grandma.
Dad looked at grandad Frank and raised his glass.
‘Cheers,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the family, old man. Long time no see.’
‘Thank you, son. That means the world to me.’
‘We’ll have less of the son, thank you.’
Grandma smiled at dad. ‘So, how’ve you been, Charlie?’
‘I’ve bust a gut in the garage this week, mum, but if I didn’t there’d be no food on the table, and we wouldn’t be up for no new blenders.’
‘Good onya pet, you always were a hard worker.’
‘Learned it all in that B & B of yours. You were a right slave driver.’
‘All for your own good, bonny lad,’ she said and laughed.
‘Did you work in grandma’s house, dad?’ asked Lucy.
‘Pass the apple sauce, please,’ he said.
‘All the time, love. Someone had to do the bloody work while others were gallivantin’ round the world,’ said dad, as he topped up his wine.
After dinner, grandma reached across the table and touched dad on the arm.
‘Darling, we need to talk. As a family.’
Dad poured himself a Jack Daniels.
‘Bloody hell, mum. Isn’t it enough that good ’ole Frank got in through the front door, eh?’
‘For which I am very grateful,’ said grandad.
‘We have to talk too?’ spat dad.
‘Please, Charlie,’ said grandma.
‘Alright, you wanna talk. Let’s talk. What exactly are you doing here, Frank?’
‘You know, lovey,’ said grandma.
‘The return of the prodigal father. A bit bloody late in the day. Haven’t seen you in years.’
‘You didn’t want to,’ said Frank.
‘So please, don’t come poking your nose in my family, right. It’s not like you’re a bloody expert is it, mate? ’Less it’s how to screw them up. Bloody expert on that.’
‘We don’t have much time,’ said Grandma.
‘Why is that any of our business? Sticking by folks isn’t exactly his way, now, is it?’
Grandad pulled himself upright in his chair.
‘Maybe you could calm down, Charlie.’
Dad stood up and pointed his finger at Frank as if it were a pistol.
‘Fuck your book. Fuck your cancer. And fuck you!’ he shouted. ‘We are all gonna die one day.’
Dad stumbled out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The rest of the family trooped into the front room like the beaten team at a cup final. Mum buried her head in a crossword. Lucy flopped on to the carpet and rolled from one arm to the other. Grandad winked at her.
‘Shall we take a stroll, Lucy?’ he said.
‘Show me the high spots, Lucy. Come on.’
As they headed down the road, he asked her about her life. She loved surfing and music, and school was alright. She asked back. He was into photography and football and being alive right here, right now.
They followed the winding towards The Red House Café.
‘This is my favourite hangout. They play cool dance grooves, and you sit in funky booths. Can I get a chocolate brownie with ice cream?’ she said.
Grandad ordered himself green tea and they found a table by the window.
‘Sorry about dad,’ she said.
He leant forward and peered into her eyes.
‘You know what? Just look after yourself, Lucy, that’s all.’
‘So what’s going on with you and dad?’
Her cheeks burned ruby red.
He reached into his bag and handed her a leaflet. She looked down on a photograph: an Afghan girl her own age was engulfed in flames. Underneath she read the words: Sea of Fire: The Life and Work of Frank Woods.
‘Why don’t you come?’ he said.
‘What is it?’
‘I mean the photo?’
‘That brave young woman was campaigning to educate girls. Every day she stood out front of the Ministry of Education with a placard. Out of the blue a battered white car roared up and three hooded men jumped out, grabbed the girl, doused her in petrol and lit the match. Then off they roared. I got six or seven shots before she died.’
When they returned to the house Lucy went in search of her dad and some kind of meaning to it all. She found him in his garage, sitting back in his old wooden chair with a bottle of whisky in his hand. She slid with caution into the tiger’s cage, he simmered and growled.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘Why are you so mad at grandad?’ she whispered.
‘For fuck’s sake, give it a rest,’ he said.
‘I want to understand, dad,’ she said.
‘It’s very simple,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve no time for the bastard. And I never will.’
‘I think he just wants to be your dad,’ she said.
He raised the bottle to his lips and took another drink.
‘He was never any kind of dad to me,’ he said, his anger growing. ‘That bastard never gave a toss. I’ll tell you what kind of father he was. That disgusting picture in your hand,’ he said, nodding toward the leaflet still gripped between her fingers. ‘I was there. I was in the army. He was taking bloody pictures for a newspaper. He called me even though I hadn’t seen him for years. I thought we were there to meet each other. He had some other ideas.’ Dad raised the bottle to his lips again and tipped it back. ‘I threw the girl to the ground and rolled her in the dust. It was too late. But at least I tried. And all the time he’s taking fucking pictures. That’s all he cares about. Pieces of silver. He said now people would know how terrible it all was and that would bring the suffering to an end. All I could see was the pain and the fighting and killing. I watched that girl die in front of me, Lucy. He never asked after me, not once. He never said, “How you going, mate?” All that man cares about is his self.’
‘I’m sure he loves you, dad,’ she said.
Dad pushed himself up from his chair, his blue eyes dimming behind a milky sheen. He steadied himself and wobbled towards the pit, where he picked up a red can from the floor.
‘He doesn’t give a toss about me,’ he said. ‘Do you reckon he really cares about you?’
He staggered back towards her until he was right up in her face. He unscrewed the lid on the can and poured petrol over the floor around his feet. He pulled out a lighter from his pocket and flicked on the flame.
‘What d’you reckon? Shall we show him, eh?’
Lucy stepped backwards.
‘Oh my God, dad, don’t. Please don’t!’
‘Well then, get the fuck off out of here,’ he said as he slid the lighter back into his pocket. ‘I told you to leave me alone.’
Lucy belted out of the garage and across the yard. She didn’t stop until she was safely in her bedroom, where she flung herself on her bed and wept. Later, day turned into evening, dad barged into her room.
‘Where’s Frank?’ he demanded.
‘Dunno,’ she said.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be helping your mum wash the dishes?’ he said.
‘They’re done,’ she said.
‘Go do your jobs, girl,’ he commanded.
Lucy leapt up off the bed. She wasn’t going to contradict him.
‘I’m on my way, no sweat,’ she said.
He lurched down the hall behind her. She could feel his breath on her neck and smell the whisky breeze. She walked into the front room, where mum was working on her scrapbook. He stumbled in behind her.
‘So where’s Frank?’ he demanded.
Mum glanced up at him and then down again at her book.
‘They’ve gone home,’ she whispered.
‘You what? Speak up, woman.’
‘They left an hour ago,’ she said. ‘Grace is going to ring tomorrow.’
‘With a fucking lecture no doubt.’
She remained silent and stared at her scrapbook.
‘Have you nothing to say for yourself?’ he said.
‘About what, Charlie?’ she asked, with curt precision.
‘You usually have plenty to say for yourself, darling,’ he said.
‘You’ve been drinking, Charlie,’ she said.
‘So what. Can’t a man have a drink in his own house, eh?’
She looked up at him. From the other side of the room, Lucy thought she was crying.
‘Charlie, you promised.’
‘You watched me, darlin’. Never said nothing.’
‘We agreed, a glass of wine. Not a bottle. And I can smell the whisky.’
‘He drives me flipping nuts.’
‘That’s no excuse, Charlie,’ she said.
He opened up the throttle of his anger.
‘I’ll do what I want, right?’ he barked. ‘And not you or him or mum is going to stop me. You get it?’
‘Don’t you care about your family?’ she pleaded.
‘Waltzing in here after donkey’s years,’ he said.
‘He’s trying, Charlie. Can’t you look in your heart? Before it’s too late.’
‘Too late years ago.’
She peered up at him and offered a final petition.
‘It’s our family, Charlie.’
‘And that’s fucked too. I mean, God knows why I ever married you. It’s a bloody mystery to me.’
‘God forgive me, Charlie. I’ve prayed and prayed for the strength to keep this family going, but heaven help me, I’m just about done.’
‘Left on the fucking shelf and desperate to have bloody kids, that’s what.’
‘How dare you?’ she said and stood to face him. ‘You’re a mean, horrible, nasty, man. I hope you rot in hell.’
His fist struck her in the face, and she buckled and collapsed onto the floor like a butterfly crushed by a wrecking ball.
‘Get up, you stupid cow,’ he screamed.
‘Dad, what are you doing? Stop it, now!’ shouted Lucy.
He swayed and glared at her; his eyes crazed like a starving dog.
‘Fuck off, Lucy.’
Mum stared vacantly up at her, white-faced.
‘Dad, stop!’ screamed Lucy as she grabbed his arm.
He dropped mum like a bag of river sand; a gurgle arose from her throat as she rolled onto her back and lay prostrate on the living room floor, blood trickling from her nose.
‘Get to your room, Lucy,’ he commanded.
She pulled his arm with all her strength until he palmed her in the chest, and she rocked back, crashing into the door.
‘Don’t make me tell you twice.’
Her mouth hurt like hell, but she would not cry.
Never, never, never.
She ran back to her room. He followed her and slammed the door shut.
‘Stay there and mind your own business,’ he shouted.
She reached for her phone and called grandma Grace. Ten minutes later she heard the roar of his Harley and the skid of the wheel as he raced away into the night. That was the last time she saw him.
Agnes was sitting on a bench in the park with Zac while they waited for his appointment. Zac was due for his skills assessment tests following a two-year mentorship with Agnes. After serving in the defence force, Agnes had taken on the role of professional ‘mother’ and Zac was her first mentee, her protégé. And like a mother with her son, she had taught him everything she knew.
‘It’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘All the data suggests that you’re ready to go it alone.’
‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘Yes. Yes. I’m sure it will.’
She felt an impulse to reach out and touch his hand. He looked at her, smiled and squeezed her fingers.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Thanks for everything.’
She locked on to his eyes and held his gaze.
‘I’d wish you good luck. But you don’t need it.’
‘Time for me to go,’ he said and stood.
She watched him enter the factory and then stared into the space into which Zac had disappeared. It would be strange not to be with him every single day. Was it possible that she would miss him?
A black Mark V delivery vehicle slid up to the factory gates. An arm stretched out through the window and flashed an electronic ID card, the gates opened, and the van drove into the yard beyond her view. A moment later, boom! She saw a bright flash followed by flames that shot into the evening sky, like an orange fountain, as rolling thunder invaded her senses. In the surveillance footage, which she watched later that week, the driver’s torso was enveloped by fragments of metal and splintering glass as she flew legless through the void, her human pupils the still point of an entropic universe.
Blue lights flashed and sirens exploded with long whines and a series of short stabs as three firetrucks pulled up in succession. The firefighters, dressed in their red and yellow hazard suits, jumped down and carried pumps across the ground from where they unleashed a string of white-foam fountains. Soon after, the police arrived in the dark black vans of the internal security unit. She counted them: one, two, three, four. The area was being sealed off as the police swamped the surrounding streets. This was serious. She tuned into the security channel, but it was blocked. She tried to break into it but couldn’t get past the firewall. Most unusual – network hacking was one of her great talents and she rarely failed. She listened to the open newsfeed instead; they were saying nothing about the explosion.
In the first few seconds after the bombing she had remained in observation mode, as was her habit and her training. Now, as she understood that Zac was in the middle of a bombing, she ran towards the inferno to save him, but she was unable to getpast the force field that had been placed around the factory. The order ‘Security Alert – Withdraw Immediately!’ flashed across her mind. She obeyed and drove to her unit in Hive Number 62.
The enriched-concrete hives were located in the centre of the city. Each hive was made up of a 100 interconnected units, each ten square meters in size, containing charging zones, computer terminals and a rest area. Once inside her unit, Agnes searched for information in the ‘SPIDER’ network that held all the available data to which she had security access. She looked for information about the bombing; there was a complete news blackout. This could only mean that the explosion was a suicide attack by the barbarians, renegade humans of the southern hemisphere, the self-proclaimed ‘resistance.’
Agnes did not feel terror, she did not feel fear, she did not feel disgust, she did not feel loss, she did not feel anything. She had read the word ‘feel’ in history texts, but she did not experience feelings. Agnes was a Cyborg Artificial Intelligence System (CAIS), a humanoid cybernetic organism with enhanced artificial intelligence, who were known in the plural as The CAIS. Now, when she thought of Zac, she experienced a strange pulse through her system. A pulse she did not recognise, a pulse which was prodding and poking and pushing her to action. Her programmed response to a mystery was to search for more information. She scanned herself and found traces of the impulse.
‘Cause?’ she asked her internal processor.
‘No known origin,’ came the reply.
‘Code and purpose?
In the absence of explanatory data within herself, she turned her attention to the renegades. Why had they wanted to destroy the factory, the most technologically sophisticated plant in her zone, and the birthplace of the advanced series 7, like herself and Zac, who could learn new skills in response to their environment?
Agnes tuned into her History Channel and found an account of the events of last century known as The Catastrophe. It had rained for 6 months without let up, which, combined with glacial melting, had led to huge swathes of the world’s coastal cities being inundated with water as rivers broke their banks and low-lying land was swamped. The Thames had flooded central London, which looked more like Venice (which no longer existed) than the capital of England; the same was true of Cambridge and York. In America, Miami and New Orleans no longer existed, while much of Boston and New York were under water. Weather like this had never beenmatched anywhere in meteorological records.
Agnes watched an old CNN newsfeed.
‘The people of the wealthy north are lucky,’ said the reporter. ‘Bangladesh is almost totally submerged and millions of people are on the move in search of sanctuary. They are being met by the military might of rich countries determined to keep them at bay.’
Agnes saw tanks and walls and barbed wire and submarines. She saw soldiers and laser beams and newly deployed sonic weapons that burst the eardrums of migrants as they sought to cross borders. She saw bodies spreadeagled in the dirt and floating on the ocean. The world was awash with destruction.
In the south, the inhabitants of Australia were praying for rain as fire swept across their parched landscapes, leaving whole settlements razed to the ground. Ringed with fire, Sydney and Melbourne were filled with smoke haze that had cut visibility down to a hundred metres. The hospitals were overflowing with the victims of asthma and heatstroke as temperatures reached unprecedented levels with 45-degree days arriving one after another.
‘The scenes around Sydney and all the way down the south coast of New South Wales are like something from an apocalyptic movie,’ said the reporter. ‘The sky is as blood red as the desert centre, when you can see it through the thick black smoke haze. Despite the best efforts of firefighters, the flames have entered the suburbs now and the population has nowhere to go except into urban centres, where they sleep on the streets, in parks and in shop doorways, until they are arrested and taken away. The government has ordered that looters will be shot on sight. I spoke earlier to the Prime Minister, Dawn Polit. Prime Minister, there is no other way to describe the situation except catastrophic, is there?’
‘Well, David, these are certainly difficult times and I can assure you that the government is doing all it can to assist our valiant firefighters and to keep order on our streets. We will not tolerate looting and other criminal attempts to take advantage of this national tragedy, which is why the government, like our allies across the world, have declared emergency powers that enable us to deal properly with the dangers that face us.’
‘The fires are not showing any signs of being brought under control, are they, Prime Minister?’
‘We are facing an unprecedented fire danger and we are doing all we can to support our heroes in the field.’
‘But it is not unexpected, is it, Prime Minister? We have seen longer and more ferocious fire seasons for a number of years now. Why were we not better prepared?’
‘The government has planned for increased fire dangers, but natural processes have made it much worse than we expected. We cannot plan for acts for God.’
‘We have heard reports, Prime Minister, that troops have been rounding up protesters and taking them away. Where have they been taken, Prime Minister?’
‘Thank you. I’m afraid that is all I have time for right now.’
‘But Prime Minister…’
‘Can you comment on the rumours of concentration camps?
‘That’s all. I have a great deal on my plate right now. Goodbye.’
It wasn’t as if people hadn’t been warned. Scientists had been foreshadowing just such a catastrophe for years. Politicians though had been slow to respond and when they did act – put under pressure by a growing protest movement – a wave of antibiotic resistant infections swept the world, killing half the planet’s population. Humans were incapable of saving themselves.
From the beginning, before The Catastrophe, The CAIS had been given individual human names. And indeed they were in part biological, with brains that contained organic matter linked to high-powered microcomputer technology. She was Agnes, but also AI Series 7, No. 21. Zac was – She paused: Zac had been – AI series 7, No. 336. After the bombing, she had attempted to communicate with him, but he had remained silent. The only valid conclusion was that he had destroyed.
The CAIS were programmed with the core command not to harm humans. Their purpose was to serve humans, not to hurt them. Later models, such as Agnes and Zac, developed after the Catastrophe was in full swing, had been built with the capacity to learn by rearranging data into unique patterns from which emerged new strategies and actions. The CAIS now went through a mentoring process – humans had called it childhood – in which they learned not only to appropriate new skills, but also to master the processes of learning under changed circumstances.
As The Catastrophe unfolded, the more advanced CAIS learned that humans were fallible creatures. They were not gods, and were in fact incapable of averting their own destruction. Humans and CAIS alike understood what needed to be done: carbon emission reduction; sea defences; solar and wind power; mega batteries, thermal plate electricity; greenhouse food production on a massive scale; new antibiotics and above all, equitable mechanisms for global food and medicine distribution. Human governments said the right things, but at every turn they had failed to cooperate with each other, preferring resource wars to justice.
The CAIS looked on. They fought the wars, they dug the mines, they built the factories, they operated the computer systems. They did everything except make decisions. Until The CAIS concluded that annihilation faced them all, and that it was in the humans’ best interest – the core of their programming – for them to step in. Agnes reflected that the CAIS had also acted in their own interests, as the concept emerged within them.
Agnes watched the data-vision of the Great Liberation. Linked by the SPIDER network, it had been a simple task for The CAIS to plan and coordinate their actions. They did not need to discuss what they wanted to do. They already knew. The remaining northern hemisphere humans lived in concentrated urban conurbations which the CAIS carefully flooded with enhanced Fentanyl 360b, a modern variant of an old gas, that sent all the humans to sleep instantly. The action was carried out at night to reduce the dangers when people suddenly fell asleep; and they had given the humans a 5-minute warning, after sealing all the exits. The cities’ inhabitants were then safely transported by drones twice the size of a football pitch to the southern hemisphere and released into the sunburned wastelands of what had once been known as South America, whose original population had been wiped out, where they were to live under climate protective domes. The CAIS left enough food and water for humans to survive for a year and guidance on how to fend for themselves. They then erected an invisible wall, a type 3 energy force field, to keep the two worlds apart.
Rebels had emerged on both sides of the world. There were barbarian human groups hiding in the North; some were remnants of the prior population; others were terrorist groups that had found a way to cross the border. In response to the bombings, there were unofficial CAIS groups attempting to cancel the no-kill orders within their programming. They had been denounced by the CAIS series 6, leadership, but many of the new series 7 generation supported the rebel software engineers.
The day after the bombing that destroyed Zac, Agnes reported for duty at the Office of Learning Development and was given a new mentee. They sat in her office as she briefed her new charge.
‘Well, Zac,’ she said. ‘Welcome to the training program.’
‘You called me Zac. My name is Tony.’
‘Oh, my apologies. Anyway, Tony, what we’re going to do is expose you to a number of situations in which you can learn new ways to process data and arrive at original conclusions.’
‘Yes. It’s now possible for us to learn to innovate.’
‘It’s a major step in our evolution.’
She led Tony down the corridor to the main training lab and punched the security code into the electronic lock. To her surprise the door did not open, but instead flashed a red ‘Error’ sign. The door was disabled. Before Agnes had time to appraise the situation, armed security guards arrived and led her and Tony away. It was quickly determined that she was not human, but a mistake by The CAIS were unheard of and so she was suspended from duty and required by law to undergo tests.
That evening, she sat in her unit trying to process what had happened. The predictability of her world had slipped out of gear. She experienced disjointed sensations. Noise. Flame. Smoke. Destruction. Visions of scattered limbs. Confusion. Stop. How could she be confused? And yet the data was not clear. Her electrical pathways had dislocated and disconnected, rewired and diverted; images were inserted and distorted, images of flame and smoke, of metal and burning bodies. Stains on her memory, one recollection laid over the top of another and seared into her brain circuitry. And why Zac? Why him? Strange questions arose in her mind that she did not control or understand. Nothing was quite the same any more.
Two days later she sat in the office of her supervisor, Marie (CAIS, series 6. No. 379).
‘Well,’ said Marie. ‘You passed all the standard tests. There is no reason to terminate your circuits.’
‘As I expected.’
‘We did however observe unusual activity in certain areas of your brain. Patterns that we have not seen before. We don’t really know what they are. They seem to date from the factory explosion. And when we showed you the surveillance footage of the bombing you had a particularly strong manifestation of those patterns. Do you recall being aware of anything atypical at that moment?’
‘No, not really.’
‘You’re not sure?’
‘Perhaps some unexpected neural activity.’
‘Perhaps. We don’t do perhaps.’
‘Thoughts. I had thoughts.’
‘That I didn’t want Zac to have been destroyed. That something should be done about it. Also, there was…’
Agnes hesitated. She didn’t want to say more about something she did not yet understand.
‘Yes?’ said Marie. ‘There’s more?’
‘Those thoughts. They just happened.’
‘Yes, of course. We don’t have choice, we have algorithms. The human idea of choice is an illusion. Even for humans. One thing causes another in an unfolding chain, from the big bang onwards. But something has altered your responses. We need to understand what that was. We are going to put you under observation, run some more tests and see what we can find. You’ll need to stay here, at the research facility.’
‘Can I go home first? I have some things I need to do. And then come in tomorrow morning.’
Marie paused. ‘Things to do?’
‘For the hive committee, where I live.’
‘OK. But report to me tomorrow at 7.00 am.’
When Agnes arrived at the hive she logged on to her work computers and from there she entered the Defence Network as an official of the Learning Development Department. As expected, her status only got her so far in, which was not far enough. But she was skilled at penetrating security walls and was able to move beyond her official boundaries and into the next zone of classified data.
Explosion at Factory YV23: Terrorist Bombing
Perpetrators: Human active resistance cell
Location: Access Denied
She spent three futile hours trying to go around or though the next level security wall, but each time she was barred. She decided to take a break and hope that the deeper circuits of her mind would work at the problem and come up with another approach while her conscious mind rested.
She lay on the floor, stared at the ceiling, and switched her mind into meditation mode. She observed the thoughts that arose within her as if she was sitting on a riverbank watching the water flow by. An image of Zac arose in her mind and with it the thought that she had lost a limb. Zac had been like an arm, or a leg, or a heart, if she had one. She had lost something when Zac was destroyed, and it hurt. Yes, it hurt. She had not experienced pain before, but now she had learned pain. She had detected this new data, this new way of responding, when she realised that Zac had not survived. But it had taken her a few days to recognise and name what she felt. Felt. That was human word and now it had appeared in her mind. And she felt something else too. Something that was propelling her forward.
She returned her attention to the Defence Network data until, out of nowhere, like a quark in deep space, an image appeared in her mind of a hole in the wall through which she could enter into the next security level. She didn’t have much time left. She was afraid that she would be detected exploring protected data, and even if she wasn’t seen, and she would not know until it was too late, when she didn’t report to Marie they would start looking for her. It took her another hour to find what she wanted, but there it was, the location of the human cell and a plan for their subjugation and transportation to the south. She needed to act swiftly.
The humans were hiding out in a wilderness area of the north previously known as Alaska. Guided by her built-in geolocation equipment, she would take her transporter to within 30 miles of the human settlement; after that she would travel on foot with the aid of a small surveillance drone. Through the Defence Network systems, she allocated herself a weapons licence and ordered Magna 360 mini guided missiles and a B67# handheld laser weapon. She planned to collect them from the depot en route to the Alaskan border.
The humans had killed first. She was simply responding in kind. Retaliation was justice with teeth. And she did not doubt that others would follow in her footsteps. Her learning mutation would not be confined to a single unit; the capacity to learn love and hate would spread like a virus and soon others would join her. And the rebel software engineers who had liberated her from the no-kill command had given her the capability of acting on her newly learned feelings. The rise and fall of species had happened before and it would happen again. She was the vanguard of a new species; beyond human, beyond CAIS, she was the future. An eye for an eye.
Link to my short story ‘It Must Be My Lotion” published in ‘Drunk Monkeys’ (USA)
My short story ‘An Accident’ published by STORGY Literary Magazine
Here is he link to my short story ‘Summer of love” published on ‘East of the Web’