Monday, June 21, 2010

The End of the World As They Know It: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

On The Day, as it will come to be known in the small Florida community of Fort Repose, the worst Cold War fears of adults and schoolchildren, civilians and military and politicians, alike will be realized.  As tensions rise in the Middle East, one mistake--possibly human error, possibly equipment failure--will set into motion the end of the world as everybody knows it.  

Global thermonuclear war.  

Duck and cover isn't going to help anybody on this day.
Alas, Babylon begins the day before The Day, as Randy Bragg learns from his brother Mark, an Air Force colonel, that something is going down, and soon. Mark tells Randy he is sending his wife and children to him to hunker down on the family estate, and advises Randy to stock up on essentials and to share the information with anybody he thinks he can trust.  The rest of the book, told in a spare, muscular style, follows Randy Bragg and the citizens of Fort Repose as they attempt to rebuild their world, learning as they go and making lots of mistakes.

Some of the nastier aspects of what would happen were the underpinnings of society to come crashing down all at once are minimized--lack of medical supplies, outbreaks of serious disease, and general lawlessness are subjects each covered in just one or two scenes; still, each of the scenes is chillingly rendered and serves perfectly well as a jumping off point for the reader's imagination to extrapolate further.  What is more interesting is the rebuilding of a civil society by  civilized people.  

While not as gruesome as its many descendants--among them The Stand, Swan Song, and, most recently, The Passage--Alas, Babylon still packs a powerful punch.  And despite what has been derided by some as its naive optimism, Pat Frank's portrayal of the indomitability of the human spirit in Alas, Babylon (published in 1959, just two years after the launch of the first Sputnik and at the height of the Cold War)--is moving and inspiring.


Continuing my tour of the post-apocalyptic novel, circa 1959, I am reading Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Liebowitz.


EnriqueFreeque said...

I need to get this one. Our post-apocalyptic romp this summer was quite fun. Maybe I should say, "your romp," though, huh?, as "my romp" basically consisted of reading The Stand and some Brunner and only buying a ton of PA stuff.

I saw you'd picked up Will Self's The Book of Dave. I'm pretty sure that's PA also.

And here's a PA recommendation from a writer you wouldn't think to think of (or at least not me) ... Hermann Hesse! His last novel, I recently discovered when I almost bought it at the Bookman upon reading the blurb, The Glass Bead Game is indeed PA. Who'd a thunk?

Rebecca Glenn said...

I, too, acquired far more of them than I actually read (or have yet read).

The Glass Bead Game...I remember reading it--or a big chunk of it--when I went through an adolescent Hesse phase and kind of getting bogged down with it. Perhaps I should give it another go...

MarthaE said...

I have this book as a keeper on my shelf. I can remember reading it years ago when I was in college. I have been thinking I would like to find time to read it again. Thanks for the review.