Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alas, Babylon - Pat Frank


Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon was published in 1959, and I first read it as a sixteen-year-old in 1964. This is the first time I’ve read it since, but that initial reading impressed me so much that I still have that particular paperback copy of Alas, Babylon on my shelves. To understand why this one made such an impact on me, it helps to remember just how deeply implanted into the minds all of us growing up in the fifties and sixties the relative likelihood of a nuclear holocaust was. We were part of that whole “duck and cover” drill process that was going on in schools all across the country in those days. We took it seriously because the adults all around us took it seriously.

So along comes Pat Frank in 1959 with a 315-page novel about what would happen if Russia started firing missiles at the United States and Western Europe in an attempt to win a nuclear war via a devastating first strike that would cost millions of lives in a matter of hours – and suddenly, our worst fears were easier than ever to picture in our minds. It all seemed very real to someone my age because, after all, the Soviet Union was already winning the space race, and catching up seemed to be beyond the capacity of the U.S. space program.

But, as it turns out, Alas, Babylon is not at all the pessimistic and terrifying book it might have been. Yes, millions do die, whole cities are wiped out in minutes, and millions more will die in the months following “The Day,” but those in little Fort Repose, Florida, are not prepared to give up even then. Randy Bragg is not going to let them. Mark Bragg, Randy’s brother, is an officer in SAC Intelligence, and Mark manages both to evacuate his wife and children from Omaha to Florida and to give Randy a 24-hour heads-up about the impending doomsday. That little head start would make a difference.

Pat Frankb
The core of Alas, Babylon is, as would be expected, the community’s common effort to survive the aftermath of being completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Suddenly responsible for their own food supply, safety, health care, and the like, the people of Fort Repose soon learn that they will have to depend upon each other if any of them are to survive the long term – and that thieves will be subject to the harshest penalty there is. Fans of dystopian novels will find much here to please them. It can be argued in fact,  that books like Alas, Babylon, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Eugene Burdick’s Fail Safe, and Peter George’s Red Alert created the pattern for most every dystopian novel that would follow.

Pat Frank’s message, however, is a bit different than the message sent by most dystopian novels. Frank does not shy away from showing the reader exactly what the carelessness and stupidity of the political class might cost the world one day. He doesn’t linger in the gore, but he does paint a clear enough picture of what would be lost – perhaps lost forever. Frank focuses more on how much we are going to miss all the things we destroy, and just how suddenly thousands of years of human advancement could be made meaningless. Pat Frank, though, has one more message for his readers, a message of hope - hope that those who survive will be able to claw back as much of the past as is humanly possible, and that civilization will survive the worst.

Bottom Line: I’ve seen a few reviews of Alas, Babylon claiming that the novel is so racist and misogynistic that it is barely readable. All I can say to those reviewers is that they just don’t get it. The novel was written in 1958 or 1959, a period during which racism was more obvious than it is today. Pat Frank makes that racism part of his story, particularly the way that everyday conversation often included casual racial and religious slurs, even to using the infamous “N-word” on numerous occasions in the book. Frank’s main characters, Randy Bragg and his family, though, are anything but racist in attitude and action. The author uses the Bragg family to make his points about racism and racists; he doesn’t preach tolerance, he shows it in action, and he makes sure that one of the key families in Fort Repose’s survival is a black family, a family that is totally accepted in the new world in which they find themselves. Read between the lines, people.

4 comments:

  1. This book made a big impact on me the first time I read it, too. And I've never forgotten it. It's the reason I'm so drawn to survival stories with apocalyptic/dystopian settings. :)

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    1. It's definitely a pioneer in the genre, Lark. It's pretty tame by modern standards, but it defintiely helped set the pattern.

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  2. It has been so many years since I read Alas, Babylon! I think of it occasionally when I read dystopian fiction; maybe now, I should find a copy and reread it.

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    1. I didn't want to stress my 1964 copy by reading from it, so I found a copy published in 2005 that my library had on the shelves. I don't know if that was the last new version published or not, but you should be able to find a copy pretty easily, I think.

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