Alas, Babylon by Frank, Pat, 1959

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Moving only slightly forward in time from Stewart's 1949 end-of-the-world masterpiece, Earth Abides, Pat Frank's novel Alas, Babylon takes a step towards conservatism and, on another level entirely, naivetee. Alas, Babylon, published in 1959, tells the story of a major nuclear conflict between the USSR and the USA that devastates most of our nation, but certainly does not kill us. The action focus on a band of neighbors who come together in mutual and shared interests in resources that become scarce after the bombs have fallen. On one level it is a fascinating small town story that rivals something Stephen King would have produced in his heyday. On another it is a technically competent military combat novel that has flavors (but not full on tastes) of what Tom Clancy would deliver to us in multiple smörgåsbords thirty years later. And at its heart its a survival story that pretty much misses the environmental ramifications of full on nuclear combat. Despite its failings in the third category there, it is compelling reading that is only just that much short of masterpiece qualification, certainly only for its one flaw. Three stars out of five.

Frank's motif in this book is pretty much served to us on a sliver platter. His notions are these: 1) A full on-nuclear is survivable; and, 2) the qualities that will allow the USA's survival are the ingenuity of its people, and the wholesomness of its people's souls. We should take these on at a time. Frank was an award winning journalist who served in the Army Information Corps during WWII, and who was given a civilian position in the Pentagon afterwards, which he held up until his early death in the 60's. Frank was certainly no dummy when it came to the effect and consequences of nuclear war. But the prose in this book, the only one of his two books on the subject where the war actually occurred, shows what seems to me to be a good solid theoretical understanding of local changes after nuclear blasts, but no real comprehension of the gross effects on the environment. Frank's book is a bit of an alternate history, where the Russians beat us in a build up of arms, and completely dominate the skies with satellites that are both for spying, and are offensive weapons platforms. As tensions build over our nation's containment policies, especially in Germany, an American fleet in the Mediterranean accidentally destroys a sub-base in Syria, resulting in lots of Russian deaths. In retalliation for that alone, and probably because they believe its time anyway, the USSR launches a timed attack on us and Western Europe.

The action of the book takes place in a lazy hamlet in central Florida called Fort Repose. There, outside of town by a few miles, Randolph Bragg whiles away the time in his large inherited home. He's young, a bit of a lush, quite a womanizer, and suffered a humiliating political defeat a short time before the war starts. His brother, Mark, is a high ranking officer in the USAF, and is in a position to know what is going on geopolitically. Mark comes to Randy with his family and gets him to take them in for the duration. Randy is a bit lazy, but snaps-to and begins last minute preparations for the end of the world. Fortunately, nothing lands close enough to do any real damage to any part of Fort Repose, and the weather keeps fallout from ever landing on any part of the town or its surroundings. The town's people in Fort Repose, and the various families that fall in with Randy's group outside of town may work their way through stashed supplies within a few months, but the streams still run fresh, the fish are biting, and the woods are full of game. Nuclear winter never sets in (the skies don't even cloud up with smoke or dust), and crops grow just fine. Instead of focusing on the obvious, Frank wrote a hopeful WWIII book. Sources of tension and conflict come instead of from a fight for basic survival to defeating racist attitudes in the post-WWII south, scarcity of certain goods, including some vital ones, which is actually resolved, and roving gangs of highwaymen, which were lynched.

When I was a boy in summer camp, I read this book for the first time. I was just a young boy then, but I was proud of myself for not only finishing, but being highly interested in what I considered to be an "adult" novel. Ive read it a few times in my adult life, and can't say that I feel the same way about the book now. It is a very fun read. Any other book that is over 350 pages generally takes me up to a week to finish, but this one I read this time in two evenings. It definately keeps you interested, and the book is moving and compelling. But Frank's views on the damage that hydrogen bombs can do just misses not only the target, but the hay-bale its attached to as well. Not that Frank was alone in his opinions. Its a well known fact now that in the beginning of the nuclear age most of our government felt that a limited nuclear war was survivable. Hell, Heinlien (I think it was him) even advocated for us to launch a limited nuclear war proactively because he and his far-right wing buddies though that the losses we may suffer would be acceptable in a world with no Soviets. I never did quite figure out how his plan of limited nuclear war would kill Russia, but not us. And since Frank's motif is of a survivable nuclear war that gets started in the first place because the soviets out do us in the weapons build up, I really look at this book as a pro-military build up novel. Frank even thorizes in the introduction that in the event of a war like this, the soviets may kill "fifty or sixty million of us, but I think we may win the war." For better or worse, thats what he gives us here.

Frank's book is also quite different from Stewart's in that instead of being set in the permissive California Bay Area, its set in a deeply racially repressive central Florida. It is, however, refreshing to see Frank describe black landowners, post-apocalyptic coeducational schools, multi-racial combat forces, and scenes where members of the Whites-Only club drink with their black brethern on the steps leading to a clearly marked "Coloreds Only" fountain. But other than the necessity of racial harmony after the nuclear deluge, Frank essentially leaves us with the same world we started out with, just knocked down a peg or two on the geopolitical ladder.

Its pretty hard for me to describe who exactly this book is for. In a non-genre interest forum, I would say that clearly its broadly for just about everyone. But in a genre forum like this, where I am pretty certain that most of you have been exposed to this kind of literature time and time again, the story is a little different. So, unless you're just starting out with SF, or unless you have a young-adult reader whom you are trying to interest in the genre, pick this one up only for completion's sake. If you're looking for more compelling nuclear apocalypse novels from this era, give On the Beach, by Nevil Shute or The Last Ship, by William Brinkley a try first. Although one of these days I will want to get the Playhouse 90 version episode that Frank wrote from this text, as I hear it is even better on the screen than On The Beach was.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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