Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959; Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005, 352pp.)
If you grew up during the Cold War Era, chances are you remember practicing the “duck and cover” method - crawling under your desk at school and covering your head - to protect yourself from a nuclear blast. Although that may sound ridiculous to us enlightened twenty-first century folk, this era of human history was a time of very real fear - fear of being overrun by Communism and of sudden annihilation by nuclear war. In fact, it was this fear that drove many novelists to document their anxieties through post-apocalyptic scenarios. Alas, Babylon is one of the many modern classics to emerge from this period.
The story is this: Mark Bragg, older brother to the novel’s main protagonist, Randy, is with SAC intelligence in the US military. With tensions rising between the US and Russia, Randy has agreed to take in his brother’s wife and kids, who live on a military base in Omaha, Nebraska, should things escalate to a full-scale nuclear war. The private code phrase agreed upon is “Alas, Babylon,” taken from a verse from the Bible’s Book of Revelations about the destruction of an ancient city marked by its population’s iniquitous behavior. When Randy receives a telegram ending with those two words, he knows the end is near. Fortunately for him, however, he lives in Fort Repose, a small, out-of-the-way town in Florida. While the Russians are certain to bomb major cities and military targets, little towns like his lose their electricity, but manage to avoid major damage to their infrastructures. Once all military targets and major cities have been reduced to radioactive dust, it becomes a story of a town’s fight for survival as society as we know it creeps back toward the middle ages. Highwaymen prey on travelers, and stealing community livestock becomes an offense punishable by death. Paper money no longer has value - instead, people trade for goods like coffee, soap, whiskey, etc. While the town is not troubled by radioactive fallout, looters foolish enough to wander into contaminated “hot” zones bring about their own demise when they steal radioactive jewelry and valuables from abandoned stores and stash them in their homes.
In other words, Frank maps out his premise well, and builds an interesting story about life in a small town after the apocalypse. So for those interested in great plots and big ideas, this relic from the Cold War Era is worth checking out - although if you’re not a member of the Baby Boomer generation, I would definitely suggest talking to someone who lived during this era to fully appreciate Frank’s work.
Click on cover for image source.