#29: Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank
“They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, ‘Alas! alas! thou great city, thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.’”--Revelation 18:10
“Thus the lights went out, and in that moment civilization in Fort Repose retreated a hundred years.”
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” ---Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog
Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon rubs shoulders with the British “cosy catastrophes” that have littered the David Pringle list so far, yet it is distinct from them in its examination of Soviet/nuclear war paranoia in the US during the 50s and 60s. So yes, the book is dated. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining journey through Cold War fears. And heck, I’m a sucker for survivalist, tear-it-down-and-build-it-back-up narratives. Aren’t you?
Pat Frank (1907-1964) is the pen name of Harry Hart Frank, a man who spent much of his life as a journalist and critic of the US government and its role in nuclear proliferation. Though AB is his best-known work, it was Frank’s third trip down the nukes-are-going-to-mess-us-up road. Previously he had written Mr. Adam, a tale about mass sterilization in the US caused by a radiation leak, and another US-Soviet knockdown like AB called Forbidden Area. But it’s Alas, Babylon that he’s known for, and it’s Alas, Babylon that made David Pringle’s cut.
The protagonist of the novel is Randy Bragg, a kind of 1950s-style slacker who lives the bachelor life on his family's estate in Fort Repose, Florida (modeled after the real town of Mount Dora). Randy is a Korean War vet, but the real military man in the family is his brother Mark, who lives in Omaha with his wife Helen and their two kids. Mark is an intelligence officer for SAC (Strategic Air Command). One day, Randy receives a telegram from Mark that reads, “Alas, Babylon.” It’s code from their childhood. Mark and Randy used to listen to their next-door neighbor “Preacher,” patriarch of the Henry family, punctuate his impassioned sermons with these two words. And Randy immediately knows what Mark is trying to tell him...nuclear war is imminent.
Mark’s family rushes to live with Randy at the family home while Mark goes “into the hole” to plan the US’ military strategy. Randy gathers goods and tells trusted friends about Mark’s warning, including his girlfriend and the Henrys next door. Almost immediately after Helen Bragg and the kids arrive, “The Day” (as it is referred to by the characters thereafter) takes place and civilization falls apart. In particular, the strategic bombing of Orlando by the Russians cuts off Fort Repose from the rest of the United States--what’s left of it--and the town quickly slips into a more primitive state. Bartering becomes the norm, governance comes at the end of a gun, and goods become extremely scarce. Luckily, Randy builds a small community of good people around himself. The Henrys grow citrus crop and raise hogs, there’s fishing from the stream just outside his home, and the group receives periodic updates from the shortwave operated by the retired admiral who lives just down the road. Add to this clan a librarian, Randy’s girlfriend and her father, the local telegram operator, and a doctor, and you’ve got a group of about fifteen that can fend for themselves...until they run out of fuel, salt, and eyeglasses. Oh, and throw in a little radioactivity and ruthless highwaymen, just to make things interesting for them.
But all of this has got me thinking, is David Pringle obsessed with catastrophe and social rebuilding? Because there’s been an awful lot of it on this list so far.
HarperCollins keeps this Cold War classic in print.
PS One of my favorite things about YouTube (really?) are all these high school kids making films about books they've read for class. Alas, Babylon is no exception...