In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, the issue of nuclear war was not just on people’s minds, it was a kind of mania that gripped the nation. I was one of the people caught up in that fear, and when I read Alas, Babylon at what was probably too young an age, the book was seared into my memory. Apparently, I was not alone, as the book went on to be a perennial best seller. Current events, which have revived concerns over nuclear weapons, brought the story to mind, so I dug a copy out of the basement to see how it held up.
The collective realization that humanity was now capable of utterly obliterating themselves had a profound effect on the society of the mid-20th century. Many simply could not wrap their minds around the devastating effect nuclear weapons would have, and in his foreword to the book, Pat Frank states that was his reason for writing Alas, Babylon. He certainly succeeded in capturing the aftermath of a nuclear strike, because many people, including myself, were left terrified by the prospect of war. What I didn’t realize at the time is that his tale, which followed some of the lucky survivors, only hinted at the magnitude of the potential disaster nuclear war would bring. No one yet realized the havoc electro-magnetic pulses could play upon electrical and electronic systems (a huge issue in our ever more computer-dependent society), or the long-term climate impact of nuclear winter.
I remember asking my father why we weren’t preparing for the possibility of war, and he simply said that if it happened, surviving might only prolong our agony (he wasn’t one to sugar-coat things). So, in my own way, I made some preparations. I scouted out places we could hide, and in the guise of gathering camping supplies, started making sure I had the gear I thought we would need. One summer, when my mom let me buy a half dozen new books from the Scholastic Book Club, one of them was an aircraft identification guide. My aerospace engineer dad was pleased his son was showing an interest in aviation, but I didn’t tell him my real reason—to be able to identify Russian bombers so we could seek shelter more quickly. Looking back, I realize my preparations were rather juvenile, but I was not alone, as a whole movement of survivalism was born out of that fear in the Cold War era.
About the Author
Harry Hart Frank (1908-1964), who went by the name Pat Frank, was an American journalist, public affairs representative, and author, born in Chicago and raised in Florida. He was a war correspondent in World War II and the Korean War. He wrote a number of novels, of which Alas, Babylon was the most popular. In 1962, Frank also wrote the non-fiction book How to Survive the H Bomb and Why.
Alas, Babylon was written while he lived in Tangerine, Florida, and the fictional town of Fort Repose was loosely based on that area. His knowledge of Florida rooted the story solidly in the familiar realities of small-town life, while his experience with the Armed Forces during his time as a wartime correspondent lent verisimilitude to the military aspects of the story. While the book was not intended as science fiction, it has long been highly ranked in lists of popular science fiction books. The novel is set in 1959, the year it was written, and had the term been used during that era, might have been categorized as a techno-thriller.
In the early years of the 20th century, science fiction was full of stories about ultimate weapons that would end wars all by themselves. In 1945, those imaginary weapons became all too real, as the United States used atomic bombs to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing World War II to a swift end, though the political and culture impact of the bombing continues to be felt through the present day. The weapons were developed through a massive scientific and engineering endeavor codenamed the Manhattan Project (for an excellent account of that effort, I would recommend the award-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes). While the US hoped to keep a monopoly on this technology, the Soviet Union developed their own atomic bomb in 1949. The US first tested a more powerful hydrogen bomb in 1952, with the Soviets testing their own hydrogen bomb in 1954.
As combat aircraft technology improved, bombers also became more capable during these years, and leaders began to contemplate wars where there would be no front lines, and whole nations could be subject to immediate attack. Even more capable as a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons, however, was the ballistic missile. The Germans had first used long-range missiles in World War II, with their V2 rockets striking England. As the war ended, the US quickly swept in, captured the physical rockets, and brought German scientists to the US—the most famous being Wernher von Braun—as part of a program codenamed Operation Paperclip. But the Soviets also developed their own long-range missiles, and soon an arms race was underway.
During the 1950s, sparked by the 1957 Soviet success in launching the Sputnik orbital satellite, there were fears that the US was falling behind in this crucial technology. There were concerns the US was too dependent on manned bombers, both land- and carrier-based, instead of missiles. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, his campaign coined the term “Missile Gap,” and he promised that if elected, the gap would be addressed as he strengthened national defenses. It has since been discovered that the dreaded Missile Gap never existed, as the Soviets lagged well behind the US in developing and fielding ballistic missiles to launch nuclear missiles. As a result, there has been much discussion on whether the inaccuracies in that intelligence were accidental or a deliberate hoax to garner higher defense spending.
It soon became obvious that the nuclear arms race was producing more than enough weapons to obliterate life on the planet, increasing the chance of accidents and incidents that could lead to war, and imposing a tremendous cost to both nations. Accordingly, governments began to negotiate treaties to limit the number of these weapons. The treaties, which included the START initiatives, were successful in bringing down the number of nuclear weapons (by as much as a staggering 80 percent), and reducing launch systems like bombers and missiles. However, even as the US and Russia were reining in their capabilities, other nations were joining the “Nuclear Club,” which now includes the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, with each additional nation making the issue of possible nuclear warfare more dangerous and complex.
There have been many fictional examinations of nuclear warfare and its impacts since the appearance of these weapons. I have examined a few in this column, but will only mention two. The first is Sterling E. Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey, a rather fanciful tale that reads as much like heroic fantasy as science fiction. The second is Leigh Brackett’s sober and thoughtful masterpiece The Long Tomorrow. Both articles have links to other reviews of books addressing this topic, along with discussions on the theme of nuclear warfare and its aftermath.
The novel is written in the third person, with viewpoint characters shifting throughout the narrative. Frank starts with the viewpoint of minor character Florence Wechek, a nosy busybody who runs the local Western Union telegraph office. It is through her eyes that we meet the main character, Randy Bragg. And she is not impressed. He keeps looking at her house with binoculars, and she thinks he is a peeping tom.
Randy comes from a good family, and his father was a respected judge. He has inherited the family estate, which includes extensive orange groves, but that is not a full-time occupation. He served in Korea, and while the book doesn’t dwell on it, was clearly traumatized by the experience. Randy ran for local office himself, but failed, largely because Florence and many others in the community view him (to put it lightly) as an anti-segregationist. And here I must pause to remind potential readers that the book is set in the South in the days of Jim Crow, before the Civil Rights Act. There are many despicable attitudes portrayed, and objectionable terms used to describe people of color. However, Pat Frank was clearly an anti-segregationist himself, and one of the book’s main messages is that people should not be judged by the color of their skin.
When we shift to Randy’s viewpoint, we find he is a birdwatcher, and had mistaken one of Florence’s birds for an extinct wild bird. And we learn that he is very close to the neighboring Black family, the Henrys, who’d bought land from his family. The patriarch of that family is a fire and brimstone preacher who used to punctuate his apocalyptic sermons with quotes from the book of Revelation, such as the titular lament for Babylon. The phrase “Alas, Babylon” is now a codeword between Randy and his brother, Mark, an Air Force Colonel. When Randy gets a telegram telling him that Mark’s family will be visiting, with the message ending in this codeword, he knows nuclear war is imminent.
Mark and Randy meet at the Strategic Air Command’s McCoy Air Force Base (which closed in the 1970s, after which Orlando’s commercial airport moved in, explaining why the three-letter designator for Orlando is MCO, in case you ever wondered). Mark explains that a Russian defector revealed Soviet plans to take advantage of their current missile superiority before the Americans can catch up (the book is based on that erroneous myth of a Missile Gap). He’s not sure where the trigger will come from, but war is imminent. Randy goes off on a shopping spree, guessing (sometimes wrongly) what will be most useful in the coming days.
Frank then shifts the viewpoint to a young naval aviator who fires a missile at a Soviet aircraft, which instead locks onto a heat source in a Middle Eastern harbor used as a Soviet base, and the fuse leading to war has been lit. We visit Mark at the SAC headquarters in Nebraska’s Offut Field, where they make final preparations for a war that is certainly coming. And just as Mark’s wife and children (Helen, Ben, and Peyton) arrive at Randy’s house, the bombs begin to fall.
Peyton, Mark’s daughter, is temporarily blinded by a nearby detonation, and we meet Randy’s friend Dan Gunn, the local physician (who makes house calls, a useful practice that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside over the decades). We discover that Florence, despite her faults, has an admirable sense of duty, as she heads out to work at the telegraph office. So does her friend Alice Cooksey, the local librarian, who expects that people will be visiting the library for information. The local Civil Defense director had dumped all his pamphlets on her, not wanting to upset people by distributing them.
In the meantime, a prison work gang on the roadside who has overpowered their guards foreshadows some of the problems that survivors will be facing. We see the local stores overwhelmed with shoppers, and the local bank president, after dealing with a run on the bank, realizes money is now worthless; he goes home and commits suicide. The day ends with a final nuclear detonation, near Orlando, which knocks out electrical power for the region.
The next day, Randy is frustrated by the lack of running water; he then realizes that his orange groves and the Henry house next door are both served by an artesian well that doesn’t need electrical power (he wasn’t using it for his house because it smelled of sulfur). He enlists the help of fellow veteran Malachai Henry and the other men next door, and soon he has running water (which they extend to other houses in the neighborhood as well).
Randy checks in on his girlfriend, Elizabeth (Lib) McGovern, whose father retired after losing his tool and die company to a proxy fight, and whose mother, not able to cope with the situation, has had a nervous breakdown. The local hotel, where Dan Gunn lived, burns down, taking a lot of the tourists with it; Randy invites Dan to live with him, and eventually Lib McGovern and her father move in as well. They have a huge feast in order to use up all the food in Randy’s freezer before it spoils, and do their best to preserve meats by salting them.
The neighbor on the other side of the Henrys is retired Admiral Hazzard. He is a ham radio aficionado, and his character serves as a means for Frank to give us a view of the wider impact of the war (the current president is a junior cabinet member, and wide swaths of the US, including the entire state of Florida, have been declared contaminated zones). As it turns out, their little neighborhood is ideally suited for survival. They live by a river and can fish, the orange groves provide fruit, and the Henry farm provides food—as well as corn that becomes moonshine, giving them a valuable commodity for trading.
We see how, over the months, this little community comes together to help each other survive, and becomes a backbone for the region as well. The library serves as a source of information, and takes over the record-keeping functions the local government once performed. The town gazebo becomes a trading center, as barter replaces cash, and bulletin boards become a key means of communication. Randy grows into a local leader, and when he hears an order on the radio for reservists to do what they can to enforce martial law, he forms a militia. I won’t detail all the challenges they face, and the various adventures they have, but it makes for an interesting and engaging tale. The story ends when an Air Force helicopter arrives, and the community finally makes contact with the outside world again.
Alas, Babylon shows the absolute horror of a nuclear war, but also contains a core of hope, rooted in the power of community and friendship, and the idea that while disaster often brings out the worst in humanity, it can also bring out the best.
Alas, Babylon has held up exceedingly well over the years. While the story unfolds through the hopeful viewpoints of lucky survivors, it makes clear that nuclear war would be utterly catastrophic, a disaster that would leave no winners. Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, the text contains some objectionable and outdated epithets, but the book does its best to prove that character and skills are the measure of a person. Eschewing selfish individualism, it shows the most important survival skills are rooted in community and cooperation. The novel still feels relevant in the present day, as we continue to grapple with the threat of nuclear weapons in global politics.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts, either on Alas, Babylon specifically, or on other books portraying nuclear warfare and the aftermath. What books would you recommend to other readers?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.