I finished reading this book a couple months ago, and it’s still in my head. I’m still thinking about the story, the characters, the ending… that to me is the sign of a classic and enduring novel. The threat may no longer be relevant to our society and culture, but the message and the questions of the novel always will be.
The year 1959 was 13 years into the Cold War, which would last until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was the year that Pat Frank (pen name for Harry Hart Frank) wrote the apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon.The fear of nuclear holocaust permeated the world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had already been targets in World War II. What would happen if the two superpowers – the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – threw all of their nuclear firepower at each other and each other’s allies? Frank explores this option in depth, focusing on a small town in Florida called Fort Repose, which just happened to be far enough from the main targets in Florida to escape the nuclear blasts.Frank starts slow, introducing his characters before the immediate threat is known, then ramps up the tension as Randolph Bragg receives a message from his brother warning him that nuclear attack was imminent with the code words “Alas, Babylon.”How the town deals with the results is the main focus of the novel, which centers around Bragg and his gradual assumption of leadership in the community. Frank makes no bones about the fact that life after an all-out nuclear attack would change drastically, but he also shows that people’s determination and resourcefulness within the community means that people not only survive, but live.These days, the idea of nuclear annihilation seems remote. Most countries have deactivated their nuclear armament, and the U.S.S.R. doesn’t exist anymore as it was. Alas, Babylon is a compelling story, nonetheless. Stories of struggle, reinvention and triumph are classic when told well, and Frank does tell it well. He also shows what U.S. culture and society was like in the late 50s – the ideas, idealism, politics, and thought process in a small town. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the story, and wonder what you would have done in this situation. Would you have taken up leadership? Become a highwayman? Killed yourself?