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January 19, 2008

Alas, Babylon - Pat Frank


Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank was published in 1959, in the time of The Missile Gap where the US assumed that the USSR had far greater nuclear capabilities than itself. It's hard to imagine now: Russia were the only country to put something in orbit, America didn't have ICBM's. The Cold War was in full force.

Alas, Babylon is the story of that American fear, a pre-emptive nuclear strike by Russia. The novel follows Randy Bragg, who lives in a small town in Florida. It is the story of how people cope with a nuclear attack, and how they survive in a town that is cut of by contaminated zones.

Again, it's hard to imagine the affect that the novel had when it was published. Nowadays we know the post-nuclear stories, we know about radiation and fallout, we know that hiding under your table is useless, we can imagine losing power and food. Alas, Babylon spells out these facts from a late fifties point of view. Suprisingly it's not bleak, but infused with hope. The main characters change as they struggle to create a new life, and change for the better. Although they encounter some lawlessness civillisation attempts to reassert itself upon the situation.

I thought the bank manager failing to cope in a world without money was a telling jab by Frank at the US's obsession with capitalism. The bank manager realises that all he has is paper: bonds, money. Nothing worthwhile. In the buying frenzy that follows the attacks the shop owners make a fortune in dollars but are left with no supplies themselves. That realisation is handled very well.

The story focuses on what you would need to do to survive: finding food, keeping healthy, managing petrol, managing the battery for their radio. How you would live in isolation from the world.

Only one line jarred with me, right at the end, when someone asks "who won the war?". It didn't quite work for me.

Overall it's an intelligent, interesting novel, and one that believes in hope after the nuclear apocalypse. Highly recommended.


1 Comment

Growing up in Florida in the 1980s, this book had special resonance for me. It was required reading in several of my classes, when my shrill teachers who were absolutely sure President Reagan would end the world made us read this cautionary tale. I'm not sure any of the teachers themselves ever actually read it, however, because I remember a lot of discussions about how *fun* the postapocalyptic Florida seemed in the book.

Lots of Orange Juice, lots of Crab, plenty of Mullet to eat and all the steak you could catch, guns everwhere and few-or-no Yankees to despoil the view with thier condos and grating accents. What was there to dislike about it? It was, in many ways, a Southern boy's dream. This really, really, really annoyed my teachers, few of whom were actually *from* Florida.

It was a fun read, though I remember my dad and I discussing it and concluding that a war fought with modern Hydrogen Bombs would have been far, far more devestating than the quaint old A-bombs they used in the book, and the aftermath probably would have been a lot less fun. I agree the "We won the war" thing at the end seemed tacked on, and undercuts a lot of the point of the novel.

I'm just mentioning this because I think it's an interesting example of how the significance of a book can change over time - the book was clearly intended as a horrifying anti-war polemic, but it ended up being a romantic boy's adventure tale that had exactly the opposite effect.