Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Harper Perennial fiction
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