Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'Alas, Babylon' by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon (1959)
Pat Frank (1908-1964)

323 pages

"Alas, Babylon", published in 1959 in the depths of the cold war, takes the modern reader back to the days when students practiced ducking under their school desks in preparation for a nuclear attack and the race to space (Sputnik in 1957 and Explorer I in 1958) threatened the extension of nuclear strike capability to outer space. According to the short biography at the end of the book, the author, Pat Frank, also worked as a newspaperman and government official. He turned these experiences into this novel, in which he lays out a plausible scenario for how the US and the Soviet Union could end up at war, and, more importantly for him, how the survivors of that war could re-build.

The majority of the story is told from the point of view of a man in central Florida, Randy Bragg, whose brother is a colonel in the US army, stationed at the Strategic Air Command headquarters. Through Randy's brother, who is stationed as an intelligence officer at the Strategic Air Command headquarters, Frank suggests that the Soviet regime in the late 50's feels that it has a short-term advantage over the US in nuclear strike capability: the Soviets had moved to missiles, which can be launched quickly from submarines or ground based sites, while the US still relied heavily on aircraft bombers.  But the Soviets realize that the US is already beginning to close this missile gap, and they decide to press hard their present advantage to pursue their strategic goals, creating in particular a tense stand-off between US and Soviet forces in the eastern Mediterranean. One poor decision leads to a disaster that convinces the Soviet leadership that the time is right to launch a surprise nuclear first strike against the US.

Due to weather conditions the area around Randy's small town in central Florida is spared significant radiation contamination when the attack comes, though the destruction and contamination of most of the rest of Florida, leave it separated from other parts of the country that have been similarly spared. Once the initial hours of the war have past, and the situation begins to clarify, at least at the very local level, Bragg and his neighbors must force themselves to get past the shock of the attacks that have devastated the country, and decide how to build a life for themselves with what is left around them.

And, ultimately, this is a book of hope and re-building. In that sense, it is much different from "On the Beach" in which Nevil Shute postulates a war that eventually blankets the earth in radiation, killing the last people, or "The Road" by Cormak McCarthy in which a father and son walk through miles of devastation under an unyielding gray sky and which ends in, at most, the possibility of hope. "Alas, Babylon" assumes not only that there will be survivors of such a catastrophe, but that they will have the opportunity to re-build.  The question central to the story is whether and how the survivors will find the will and the means to confront the new world they face.

The story is laid out plainly; it is not a mystery or action adventure story, though these things also play a part. Frank's experiences with the government and the military come through in the military and civil defense concepts and acronyms he uses often without explanation. Some of these may have been more familiar in the depths of the cold war 1950's, but not knowing them doesn't detract from the story for the reader, because the military jargon is not the point of the story, and it fits the direct and indirect military backgrounds of several of the characters. More prominent are the race and gender dynamics in the story, which seem anachronistic from the view of 50 years later; the story unintentionally provides the modern reader with a reminder of the significant shifts that have occurred in American life in the intervening years.   But the focus of the novel finally is on how people can move past unimaginable devastation to band together and learn to move on --- in their own lives and in their relationships with their neighbors.

Other reviews / information:
A review on a website devoted to the BBC television series

A more critical review on Omphalos Book Reviews

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

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