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.