Bewildering Stories

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Alas, Babylon: the blue collar review

by S. Francis Murphy

The spark to Armageddon was struck in the Middle East by a pilot from the U.S.S. Saratoga. It was unintentional; the result of a technical failure that caused a heat-seeking missile to chase a train rather than the Communist-backed fighter plane. The world boiled out of control after that into thermonuclear oblivion.

This is the premise of Pat Frank’s post-apocalyptic novel, Alas, Babylon, a novel about the Central Florida town of Fort Repose and their struggle for survival after the balloon has gone up. This classic hit the stands in hardcover when Eisenhower was still President and Khrushchev was upset over U-2 flights over Soviet territory. By 1960, when Kennedy was preparing to move into the White House, Pat Frank’s novel arrived in paperback. No one suspected that the Cuban Missile Crisis lurked in the fog of history.

The novel is an easy read and a testimony to the breakdown of civil society in the aftermath of an atomic exchange. Readers see most of the story through the eyes of Randy Bragg: reporter, Korean War veteran and U.S. Army Reservist. It falls on his shoulders to protect Fort Repose from bandits, lawlessness and to restore order. He and his band of neighbors, which includes a doctor: a retired Admiral, with a clutch of women and children, who struggled to keep food on the table and exploit the natural resources of their environment.

Segregation, which was still in effect at the time of this story, broke down as a result of practicality. Children pull guard duty, fish and hunt much as their frontier forebears would have in the past. Women appear to be relegated to the gender stereotypes of the era, with fits of hysteria and irrational behaviour. The men, including the bandits, always appear to be cold, rational and logical.

The novel is an excellent study in the prejudices of the period, and the inherent optimism with which contemporaries of this era were prepared to deal with any crisis. Unfortunately, the prospects of survival are somewhat optimistic to say the least. Pat Frank’s story does go to the trouble of explaining towards the conclusion that Fort Repose has been extraordinarily lucky, surviving the hazards of fallout or a direct hit in the atomic exchange. But today’s reader may have trouble with the notion that there is no nuclear winter and the notion that segregation would disappear just because civil society disappeared.

Additionally, the behaviour of the women characters, while they each have their admirable qualities as human beings, will strike the reader as sexist in the extreme.

A classic piece of literature, which should be reviewed alongside any study of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War, Alas, Babylon is a window to a world which has passed into history and another world which could have erupted from history. It has my recommendation.

Copyright © 2003 by S. Francis Murphy