Monday, September 17, 2007

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank - RIP #1

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Copyright 1959
Harper Perennial fiction
323 pages

Alas, Babylon is the tale of what could have happened if the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1950's had suddenly become a true nuclear holocaust. The book has become a classic of apocalyptic fiction, so there's a good bit of extra information in the "Modern Classics" printing shown in the image above - a foreword by science fiction author David Brin, a preface, a bio of the book's author, Pat Frank, plus a second afterward section that goes into further detail about the author's life and other works of the time period. I read them all and found every detail interesting. Nothing bored me or made me roll my eyes (just so you know).

I didn't know a lot about Alas, Babylon, apart from the fact that it was apocalyptic, going into the book. What surprised me most is that it's firmly entrenched in the time period. Instead of setting the book in the future, the author's goal was apparently to show what would happen "right now" (and the copyright date is 1959, so "now" was the late 50's) if the Cold War was to escalate into a third world war. The result is a fascinating look not only into the what-if of a potential nuclear war, but also into the time period in which the book was set. I think the book was worth the time spent reading, if only for a good view of the lifestyle, values and prejudices in small-town Florida in the 1950's. There are some sentiments similar to those we often see expressed, today:

"I keep the library open Saturdays. That's my only chance to get the young ones. Evenings and Sundays, they're paralyzed by TV."

Of course, the difference is that the television paralysis goes on 24 hours a day, now. Anyone remember the days when Sunday night was a special TV evening, thanks to "The Wonderful World of Disney"? And, Saturday mornings were cartoon time, but the moment "The Wide World of Sports" came on, Saturday TV was over for children? I'm not sure if those particular shows were on in 1959, but I do remember that television for children remained limited to within certain hours until the advent of The Disney Channel and all those other content-specific channels that have now been around for an entire generation's viewing.

Back to the book . . . The entire story takes place in a small town in central Florida. About the first 90 pages or so serve as the set-up, during which the reader meets the protagonist, Randy Bragg, his brother, his sister-in-law, neighbors, girlfriend and a few townspeople. Randy is a kind and basically good person who lives in a small section of the sprawling Bragg family home. His brother, Mark, is a military man and has expressed some concern about the potential of a nuclear war. To this end, the brothers have chosen words from a section of the book of Revelation in the King James Bible as the signal to indicate when danger is imminent. Mark signals the danger and sends his family to stay with Randy. And, within a short time, the bombs begin landing.

Here is where the book becomes gripping. As bombs fall and mushroom clouds sprout, radio chatter is limited to military use and the citizens are left in the dark, unsure (apart from the obvious) what exactly is happening. When the closest large city is hit, the source of power generation in tiny Fort Repose is lost. Fortunately, Randy has already begun collecting supplies and has a good start when the bombs begin to hit. So the protagonist is the most prepared of all the characters in the novel. The local doctor also helps stock Randy with medical supplies after the beginning of the war. As the fact that Fort Repose - if not the entire United States - has been thrown back in time by the loss of electricity, gas, radio, batteries, phone service and currency becomes obvious, the citizens begin to adapt.

At the beginning of the book, Randy is a little on the lazy side. He sits around in his pajamas and is just a bit of a lost soul. I loved this quote by his girlfriend:

"This place is no good for you, Randy. The air is like soup and the people are like noodles. You're vegetating. I don't want a vegetable. I want a man."

Of course, then the women end up serving the men tea cooked over the fire and a few other uncomfortable facts of life in the Fifties - chiefly a strong racial prejudice - are described. Annoying and shocking as they can be, the book is unflinchingly honest about life in that time period. The author also did a pretty stunning job of describing the effects of being thrown backwards in time. Some of us have, unfortunately, experienced that sudden isolation as power, telephone, cellular phone and radio service disappeared after Hurricane Katrina hit. It was every bit as upsetting and strange as Frank described. To this day, I don't think a lot of people realize that we actually had no idea how widespread the damage was for nearly 24 hours - contact with the outside world was that thoroughly cut off, grocery stores and citizens lost their entire refrigerated and frozen stock, dry foods and water disappeared as soon as the stores reopened, people fought over gas for generators. I can tell you that the book is realistic to the experience in many ways.

While I personally thought the reasoning for the nuclear war was extremely weak and there were a few things the author overlooked - bicycles, for example, I thought should have become a highly coveted possession and I wondered why nobody mentioned trying to harness the power of the nearby river, wind or sun as power sources - I thought Alas, Babylon was, overall, a spectacular look at what life could end up like in the event of widespread nuclear disaster. And, of course, it does serve as an excellent peek into history.

4/5 - clear writing, excellent story with only a few noticeable flaws and definitely deserving of its classic status in my humble opinion.

This is my first completed book for the RIP II Challenge.

Next up: reviews of Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin and Raising Ourselves: A Gwich'in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River by Velma Wallis. I may make those mini-reviews - we'll see.

We're now in the mid- to upper-80's, but the daylight hours are comfortable enough (before the warmest part of the day hits) that I need to limit my computer time in order to get some major outdoor work accomplished. So, I may just dip in to write reviews and post occasionally, for the next few weeks. I'll apologize in advance, in case I'm unable to do much blog-hopping. We have to take advantage of decent weather while we've got it.

Later, bookish people!

Bookfool, feeling invigorated by the cooler air


  1. I haven't read that book since I was in the 7th grade, which was a looooooong time ago. As happens when I read your blog, you're making me want to head to the bookstore and pay their rent!

  2. Alas, Babylon sounds great! I'll have to add that one to the wishlist. That isolation from power that you talk about is indeed a scary thing. The scariest thing is how much we rely on it and how little we realize we rely on it until it's taken away. Katrina was the shocker of a lifetime when it came to that and it sounds like Alas, Babylon does a good job of capturing that feeling even back in the 50's when things didn't rely on power half as much as they do now!

    I do indeed remember the Wonderful World of Disney from when I was a kid. I used to look forward to it every Sunday. The first movie I remember seeing on there was Bedknobs and Broomsticks and I fell in love with it.

    The weather's been much nicer...particularly in the mornings and afternoons. The middle of the day is still a bit of a scortcher, but we're sloooowly getting there!

  3. I remember liking it a great deal. In fact, it's one of those books that I have intended to re-read but just haven't. It didn't so much frighten me as grip my nascent teenaged mind. I enjoyed the way Pat Frank wrote it.

  4. My rating (3.25/5) was affected by THE ROAD which I found to be extremely powerful. ALAS, BABYLON didn't have near the same impact. I'm glad you really enjoyed it, though. :)

  5. Andi said:

    I haven't read one of these post apocalyptic sort of disaster books in a very long time even though I typically lurv 'em. Thanks for the review! Definitely adding this one to the mooch list.


    I think it's funny that so many upbeat people love reading apocalyptic novels. I wonder what that says about us!! BTW, I definitely think it's worth mooching. :)

  6. Cupcake,

    Well, shucks, I feel all glowy just knowing I made you want to reread the book. And, boy, can I relate to that statement about paying the bookstore's rent. I think I've helped a few too many booksellers stay solvent. :)

    I'm curious what you thought of the book when you read it in the 7th grade.


    You haven't read Alas, Babylon? I'm stunned. It seems like your kind of book.

    Oh, yes, I agree with you completely about how frightening it is to realize you're dependent on things like power and gasoline, radios and phones. I thought the book captured both the feeling of that desperation I'm sure we all felt at being cut off and the time and setting.

    Ha! And, I thought you were too young for the Disney thing! :)

    Same here on the weather. If I can get out and move limbs and do some trimming in the morning, then I might be able to do some blog-hopping and reviewing in here. But, you know that jungle feeling you get at the end of the summer? I've got to hurry and get going or the house is going to disappear. LOL

  7. Hi Jenny!

    I hope you enjoy the book!


    Thanks for answering that question. Alas, Babylon is gripping, all right. It's undoubtedly a completely different book when read in a different time period, now that there is no U.S.S.R. - kind of funny to realize that we thought of them as "the enemy" and potentially dangerous when their infrastructure was quietly crumbling.

    I was definitely impressed by the clarity of Frank's writing. When you get around to reading, please let me know. It will be interesting to see if the book holds up to your memories.

    And, pardon me for accidentally deleting my first message, so your answer shows up above it. I'm having quite an interesting morning. It might be best to just go back to bed and sleep off the last half hour.


    I haven't read The Road, yet. From what I've read, the two books are quite different. Alas, Babylon ends on a hopeful note and I was under the impression that The Road is bleak. Since I'm way low on the wish list for The Road, hopefully I won't end up comparing the two, as you did.

  8. I think you did everyone a great service. People who didn't know about this book, or who weren't inclined to read it before, surely will be after reading your review, and that makes me very happy. I love this book and I'm really glad you liked it too.

    I remember The Wonderful World of Disney! Kids today don't know what they are missing.

  9. Kookie,

    I'm glad you like the review because it took me days of mulling before I finally felt comfortable sitting down to write about the book. It was one of those books you want to write about carefully in order to do it justice.

    So true. I loved our Disney evenings - they used to make some wonderful movies about nature and independent children or survival. Now, it's all cartoons and garbage. My opinion. I had a particular favorite called "Three Without Fear" (I think!) about three children who have to find their way back to civilization after a plane crash in which their father is killed. I loved those survival stories.

  10. I so want to read this book. I have an old copy from a library sale and may just have to add it to my ridiculously long list for Carl's challenge. Your review has inspired me to move it to the top of the stack. It sounds much better than Earth Abides (a post apocalyptic novel I read a year or two ago).

    I remember those days (or nights) of The Wonderful World of Disney. My parents were pretty strict about bedtimes and the show came on at 7:30, as I recall. I rarely got to stay up that late to watch it! And I was in 2nd or 3rd grade at the time. :(

    Enjoy your cooler weather. We're in the high 60s with thunderstorms today. Yay! I don't have to drag the hose around this week. :)

  11. Les,

    I haven't read Earth Abides, so I can't compare. Actually, I'm not sure I like comparing, anyway. LOL I really did like the book. There were times I thought the hero was a bit full of himself, but I liked the fact that he's basically a person with a big heart. He gradually lets more and more people move into his big house, in spite of limited supplies and the cooperative spirit is both believable and inspiring, IMHO.

    The prejudice in the book drove me nuts, just because I so hate prejudice.

    You must have been on Eastern time as a child, yes? I remember our Disney time was 6-8 or 6:30-8:30, so the timing was just about right. The Wonderful World of Disney was the capstone to our Sundays. I absolutely loved those weekly movies. If we were out and about, we rushed home in time to catch Tinkerbell trailing fairy dust around the castle. Ah, memories.

    It's hot, again, darn it - back to the upper 80's and 90's. Oh, well. It'll cool off, again, eventually.

  12. I absolutely loved this book. I definitely think it's a must-read. :)

  13. Becky,

    I totally agree. It's one I plan to return to.

  14. Anonymous12:23 PM

    It sounds like you really enjoyed it and I loved the quote you put up. but I am not sure it's for me.

  15. Rhinoa,

    Yep, I enjoyed Alas, Babylon. It went down as one of the month's favorites. I like apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic books, for some reason. I don't think I've thoroughly disliked a single one, yet. But, they're definitely not for everyone. :)

  16. Anonymous6:12 PM

    I've read this novel. It's great, but the beginning is very boring. It's wonderful after chapter 6 though!

  17. Anon,

    It's been over 2 years since I read Alas, Babylon, so I don't remember the beginning, anymore. But, I just read through my review and it looks like I felt much the same -- the first bit was all set-up and it didn't get exciting till the bombs began to fall. I'll have to reread this one, soon.


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