Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) 323 p.

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Another entry in my growing fascination this year with nuclear holocaust, particularly in those early days of the late 1940s and the 1950s, when people had just seen the world ripped apart by war and had every right to be pessimistic about what was going to happen next. Alas, Babylon was a popular and influential book in its day, at the tail end of the 1950s, a time of rising tensions with the USSR and increasingly powerful bombs and sophisticated delivery systems. The novel focuses on the fictional town of Fort Repose (based on the real town of Mt Dora in central Florida, where author Pat Frank retired after a long journalism career) and how its residents survive a brief nuclear war and its aftermath.

This is not what I’d call a “post-apocalyptic” novel. We’ve been conditioned to think that Trump or Putin pressing the button means life on Earth is wiped out. The most extreme example of that in nuclear fiction is probably Alas Babylon’s contemporary, On The Beach, an exceptionally depressing 1957 novel set in Melbourne in which a nuclear war wipes out all life in the northern hemisphere and the population of the southern hemisphere is left to watch it slowly drift south and kill off each latitude month by month. I’m no expert but I don’t think anybody has ever been able to assess with total confidence whether a nuclear winter event would actually occur and whether it would actually wipe out humanity. It’s probably not true now (only a fraction of America and Russia’s nuclear weapons are armed at any given moment these days) and it probably wasn’t true in the late 1950s , when the technology was less advanced. But anyway, that’s not the point. Alas, Babylon reminded me of the later novel Warday, in that it sets out to demonstrate how even a limited nuclear exchange which still leaves, say, half the population of combatant nations alive is still a horrific outcome which basically unravels them as functioning states. There’s still some limited suggestion of federal government after the bombs drop in Alas, Babylon, but it’s mostly on the emergency broadcasting system or dropping leaflets from planes. Most of Florida’s big cities have been wiped off the map, and the citizens of Fort Repose are on their own.

And this is where Alas, Babylon is actually quite an optimistic book. It eschews the every-man-for-himself tribalism of later apocalyptic fiction for a more hopeful view of how people would behave in a long-term crisis. Most people are not ready to tear out their neighbour’s throat even when the chips are really down – the guy from the next town over, maybe, but not your milkman or your banker or your kids’ school principal. Maybe Frank’s thumb is on the scale a bit, given that nobody in the book ever really faces a scarcity of anything other than luxuries; I don’t know what Florida’s population was in the 1950s, but find it hard to believe a small town doing somewhat okay wouldn’t be swarmed with hungry radioactive refugees if warheads rained down on today’s Florida. But, hey, it’s speculative fiction, and if Frank wants to speculate that civic pride and lingering patriotism would enable the people of this small town to work together for the common good, that’s fine by me.

In many ways this book reminded me of Frank’s contemporaries in the world of 1950s science fiction: John Wyndham and John Christopher, and not just because his attitude towards women is risibly dated. (His views on race, at least, are a bit more progressive, likely because Frank himself was not a Southerner.) The protagonists of Alas Babylon are cut from the same cloth as the protagonists of Wyndham’s books, and specifically John Christopher’s grim famine novel The Death of Grass: they endure an unimaginable catastrophe and the end of their way of life with stoicism, because both they and the men writing them had already endured the Second World War, whether on the home front or in uniform. I don’t mean that as a shallow commentary on The Youth These Days, of which I am one; times change but people don’t, and I believe my own generation would do just fine if forced to undergo a state of total war against fascism today, except of course in the 21st century the fascism is calling from inside the house. Anyway, the point is that this generation was in fact unlucky enough to have to go through an unprecedented crisis, and I think that kind of formative, shared experience is demonstrated in the kind of characters they write: men who already have that awful experience under their belt, which serves them well when they have to face down something even worse, and who accept that they just have to buckle down and get a difficult job done.

And much of Alas, Babylon is about exactly that: getting a job done. It’s about a small street at the edge of Fort Repose which becomes a sort of extended family, and all the various troubles they have in securing fresh water, regular food, medical supplies, security, information etc. It reminded me in that sense of Earth Abides, George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel of viral apocalypse, in that it takes a sort of Boy Scout enjoyment in jury-rigging solutions to problems when modern conveniences are stripped away, and slowly rebuilding a healthy community. It has an odd plot structure, almost as though it was originally written as a serial; a violent confrontation which would probably serve as the climax in any other book is treated as just a particularly difficult problem, and the novel goes on about securing salt and why the fish stocks are declining for another forty or fifty pages afterwards. There’s nonetheless something very readable and engaging about it. I don’t think it’s a great novel, but it’s certainly more sensitive and perceptive than most sci-fi novels of its era, and I enjoyed it a lot.