I’ve been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction since my mother gave me Swan Song to read in like the eighth grade or so. My parents were big sci-fi/fantasy readers, so I ended up picking up a bunch of books off their shelves, including Battlefield Earth, though I’m pretty sure neither of them had any idea what Scientology was. I know I didn’t until I got to college.
I bought this book for my husband for Christmas since it was on his Amazon wishlist. Originally published in 1959 and written by Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon is about central character Randy Bragg as he survives a major nuclear attack on the United States during the Cold War. Set in the small town of Fort Repose, Florida, the story has held up astonishingly well for a book written over fifty years ago.
Randolph Bragg is a laid-back, failed politician living in his family home in Fort Repose when his brother Mark sends him an urgent telegraph. He’s sending his wife and children to Fort Repose in a couple of days and ends his message with a cryptic, “Alas, Babylon”.
A childhood code between two brothers, “Alas, Babylon” was an alert message in milder times, but during their last conversation, Mark informs Randy that the next time he uses it, it means his Air Force intelligence has indicated that The End is coming. Immediately after getting the message, Randy begins to buy up supplies, oil, gasoline, and groceries while only informing a small handful of neighbors of what he knows.
Situated in a tiny neighborhood just outside of a town called River Road, the Bragg home has a priceless resource available in an old artesian water well, which his African American neighbors have used for years. Since this book was written in the 50s, racial integration is a topic that comes up consistently, making it one of the few aspects of the story that is truly dated. It’s handled tastefully, while still making a statement of support through Randy’s open acceptance of his neighbors, even before “The Day.”
With his brother’s wife and two children safely in his home, Randy is awakened by the sounds of nuclear bombs falling in Miami and Tampa the morning after they get back from the airport. When Orlando is hit later, power to all of Fort Repose is gone, and their reliance on power for many everyday conveniences is suddenly highlighted, revealing their weaknesses as a civilization spoiled by modern conveniences. Randy’s method of thinking in general is called into question as the lack of value in some of his stocking choices becomes apparent, showing how a civilized state of mind can greatly hinder survival in the midst of a lesser quality of living.
What I particularly enjoyed was the straightforward and simple mood of the story in general. While both Swan Song and Lucifer’s Hammer were good reads, the sometimes weird and off-the-wall aspects of those books were often a distraction, and although they were plausible aspects of a post-apocalyptic world, they were merely sections that I needed to get through. Pat Frank keeps his focus strictly on day-to-day survival with only minor attention paid to popular topics of today such as love triangles or Mad Max-type crazies.
I couldn’t help but notice that the issue of rape went completely unmentioned, and I attribute this to the period the novel was written in. It’s an issue that I think deserves a spot in this type of fiction, but I found that I was actually somewhat thankful that it wasn’t present, despite the break from the reality of it. I worried a lot about Alice the librarian biking in to work every day, but it didn’t seem to be an issue that the author wanted to or felt the need to address. This type of neglect actually served to enhance the depressing appeal of their survival story for me, as the basic, non-sexual emotional needs and hunger being the most prioritized issues for Randy’s small band of survivors was enough to worry about as it is.
The perspective bothered me a bit, as the author switched character perspectives from one paragraph to another without any spacial breaks, but it was easy enough to adjust to as the book went on. The entire latter half of the book read like one big epilogue, with an overview of their survival over the next year and the eventual re-emergence of the United States government with a conflict with some highway gangs bringing forth a threat to their lives outside of natural causes.
The story reminded me of both Battlestar Galactica and Jericho and I couldn’t help but wonder if the writers of both those shows were influenced by this story. In Alas, Babylon, the President is now a woman who was some small secretary of the department of education, which is precisely how it went down in the BSG miniseries. Jericho’s small town setting really drew parallels to this story as well, though the plot was modernized to center around domestic terrorism rather than the Cold War.
Overall, the book was a great read and never really slowed down despite its small town setting. It brings to light several key points of survival that can age another fifty years with the novel including such basic needs as water, salt, and self-sustaining sources of food and also points out several trades long forgotten by the everyday citizen that become parts of survival such as sewing and cobbling. Today’s modern generation could certainly learn a lot about preparation for a world-changing event simply by reading the book for entertainment. At its conclusion, one can’t help but feel the sudden urge to go out and buy a supply of canned meats, flints, ground coffee, and a set of encyclopedias.
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