Friday, March 11, 2016

Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank)

Alas, alas, that great city, Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgment come. ~ Revelation 18:10.
If you start reading Alas, Babylon without any knowledge of its 1950-1960's contemporary times, you might think that Harry Hart "Pat" Frank was talking about today.

All the world political scenarios are identical to today: Middle East tension, military secrecy, social fear and paranoia, apocalyptic talk, spy satellites.

But no, this classic "day after" novel was published nearly 60 years ago, in 1959, proving once again that the old adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," is true.
If you could see it [Sputnik], then it could see you.
Doomsday. Even those who never experienced the looming dread of the Cold War, the Missile Gap, nuclear submarines, and "duck and cover" cannot avoid the chilling shivers when they hear the word. Images of madmen with their fingers poised on the "Fire!" button crowd our minds and inflame our fears.

In Alas, Babylon, those nightmares come true.

Randy Bragg and his small group of survivors in Fort Repose, Florida, are hurled back into pre-technology America—no electricity, no radio, no television, no mail, no commercial food supplies, no law and order.

And of course, no Internet, no computers, no smart phones, no iPads and tablets (these things hadn't even been thought of yet, must less invented) ... just Conelrad 640 and 2240.

So, what happened? A young U.S. Navy ensign F-11-F Tiger fighter pilot accidentally sent a Sidewinder missile into the Syrian port of Latakia, touching off a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
When Moscow quits talking, I'm afraid they're acting.
Then, when the reader's nerves are sufficiently on edge following a skillfully induced and tense buildup, two nukes slam into Florida—the Strategic Air Command base at Homestead, and Miami International Airport. Another follows almost immediately, wiping out the Tampa/St. Petersburg-Sarasota area. Not long after, Jacksonville is obliterated.

Randy Bragg correctly surmises that the Soviets hit everything they could, with everything they had, all across the country. In that moment, everything changes. And I mean EVERYTHING. Good Samaritans become a thing of the past. Altruism falls by the wayside. Only family and really close friends matter.
Oh, the foul, life-destroying, child-destroying bastards! Those evil men, those evil and callous men! God damn them!
Alas, Babylon is damned scary, but not sensational horror. It is
predictive, perhaps prescient. Its plot outline has been used in nearly all other post-nuclear or apocalyptic fiction: Heavy chaotic traffic, runs on supermarkets, hoarding, shortage and bartering, breakdown of law and order, marauding escaped convicts, foraging and looting, isolated hysteria ... and radiation poisoning from nuclear fallout.

More importantly for Fort Repose, human person-to-person relations change. They reset, shift and change, many for the better, but unfortunately, many for the worse. It's the model upon which subsequent post-apocalypse stories have been based.
The very fact that I must speak to you as the Chief Executive of this nation must tell you much. [Josephine Vanbruuker-Brown, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare]
Pat Frank takes his time introducing the principal and supporting characters, something for which I have always been grateful. It gives the reader a chance to experience and accept each in turn without having to cope with bunches of new people every couple of pages.

Having read this gripping novel in its Reader's Digest Condensed Book incarnation, I eventually bought the paperback when I was in college, and read it countless times during the Cold War era, the perfect atmosphere for such a nuclear war thriller. Alas, the paperback was lost several years ago.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I was jogged out of inaction and purchased the ebook edition (unfortunately, with lots of errors in the optical character scanning). I guess I can thank Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, and the recent Cold War drama, Bridge of Spies for that. They reminded me of Cold War America.

Things close optimistically, but don't be complacent, don't dismiss the scenario as implausible and irrelevant. We are as close to it today as we were 50 years ago.

My Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
Genre: Drama, Post-Apocalypse
Published by J.B. Lippincott, 1959; Harper Perennial, 2013

No comments: