Alas, Babylon

Pat Frank
Alas, Babylon Cover

Alas, Babylon

Sable Aradia

Read for the Apocalypse Now! 2016 Reading Challenge and the Okanagan Regional Library Summer Reading Program.

Method of the world's destruction: global thermonuclear war!

I think this is probably the best apocalypse novel I've ever read. And that includes Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crakeand Stephen King's The Stand.

Not because it was well-written; although it was. It's because it has to be the most human apocalypse I've ever seen. The protagonist and the major characters are residents of a small town in Florida in 1958 when the Russians decide to launch the nukes and the United States retaliates. H-bombs explode all around as the major cities are taken out over a series of a couple of days. The power goes out, deliveries and the mail and almost all radio communication stops, and everything goes south from there.

The fact that it's 1958 changes a lot of things considerably, and our current understanding of the technology is not the same as the 1958 understanding of the technology. For instance, climate change as a result of the nuclear holocaust is not considered, though it is hinted at. And I find it difficult to believe that a small town surrounded on three sides by major nuclear targets within a landmass the size of the State of Florida would be almost unaffected by radiation, except for some things that were looted from a radioactive fallout zone as people were on their way back home. And the author's understanding of that was different from my understanding, because I'm pretty sure that if there was enough fallout to irradiate the loot in the time period following the nuclear strikes then the people who took it would have died when they did so. But otherwise, as someone who has done a lot of research on the actual effects of nuclear explosions and radiation, I would say it was spot on.

More interesting were the social differences. One reviewer was incensed at the racism and sexism in the novel. I think this is silly; first of all, because what do you expect from a novel written in 1958, in Florida, which depicts 1958, in Florida; and second, because the author made it clear that the protagonist did not accept the racist conditions of contemporary Florida (as a matter of fact, part of the protagonist's back story is that he lost a local election because he wasn't racist). I get impatient with these attitudes sometimes; for instance, I did find that the protagonist's private thought that "women need a man around" was a little rich when you consider that he was thinking this two days after one of the major female characters had saved a man's life due to quick thinking and steel nerves, and the little girl of the piece had just discovered a new, rich source of food after a month of famine because of her ingenuity, but seriously, it's unrealistic to expect the characters in older books to think like modern people. What was the author supposed to do? Pretend that segregation in 1958 Florida didn't exist? That men didn't think that women were weak and needed protecting? Thanks for demeaning the struggle of all the people who fought for their civil rights in the meantime! But I digress...

The story itself focuses on a few ordinary people in a small town pulling together and pooling their collective resources - material, intellectual, manual and spiritual - to survive when all of civilization around them, and all the trappings of civilization we've come to rely on, collapse. And do you know what? Spoiler alert: [ the jerks all die. Not that I'm spoiling the story for you much because that's not really what the story's about, but all the jerks die. Why? Because they're jerks and without community support, they have to deal with the post-apocalyptic world alone. And the good guys have nothing to do with it. They just succumb to the existing conditions. I love it. Contrast The Death of Grass by John Christopher, which I also read for the Apocalypse Now! challenge, in which his thesis seemed to be that humans would descend into craziness and savagery as soon as they're given a chance. It's sure nice to have people being human beings to each other and trying their best to keep a sense of legitimate order and community while everything's going to hell for a change. People really do tend to do that in disasters.

Better still the practical nature of the things that threaten their survival and their solutions for them. The enemies? Bombs, radiation, the weather, bad sanitation, boredom, lack of sufficient skills, human greed, lack of salt, lack of water, famine, highwaymen. Lack of salt! Wars have been fought over supplies of salt because humans need it; something we don't tend to remember because we eat all kinds of canned foods that are full of salt. But when deliveries stop coming to a small community, they don't dare leave it because they don't know what's been irradiated around them and what hasn't, and everyone's cleared out all the stores in the initial panic, there's no canned food left that people aren't hoarding as trade goods, and salt becomes an issue. Kudos to the author for remembering this.

Pat Frank worked for the Office of War Information and his introduction says that he basically wrote the novel to shut up all the hotheads who were calling for open war against the Russians, because they figured the U.S. could win. Frank knew that a nuclear war meant worldwide devastation and "bombing back to the stone age," and he wrote the book to demonstrate this. As nuclear warheads became more powerful, the horrors that he envisioned have, of course, become a mere papercut compared to what would actually happen were a nuclear war to break out tomorrow.

The pacing, too, deserves special mention. It starts off as this slow, ordinary little town going about its daily business, except for some distressing things on radio and TV about tensions rising between the U.S. and Russia; but how many times had Americans heard that by this point in history? And slowly, one crisis after another is introduced until it's an edge-of-your seat saga of survival, something that reminds me of Stephen King in its style and flawless execution.

In other words, if you've ever had an interest in apocalyptic fiction, Alas, Babylon is considered to be a classic of the genre, and it's clear to me why. Read it.