Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Alas, Babylon

Pat Frank
Completed 3/26/2015, Reviewed 3/26/2015
5 stars

This is my second time through “Alas, Babylon”, this time for book club.  It was one of the first books I read on this three year infatuation with SF and Fantasy.  I wasn’t writing reviews yet when I first read it, so now’s my excuse to do so.  Despite being a nuclear apocalyptic novel from 1959, its speculation on small town life after the Soviet Union bombs the heck out of the US still feels terrifyingly fresh and important.

Randy is a privileged bachelor living in the outskirts of Fort Repose, a small town in central Florida.  His prudish spinster neighbor thinks he’s a cad with his women and whiskey.  She even catches him staring at her house with binoculars.  But all this Mayberry melodrama quickly fades when the Soviet Union bombs every major city and military installation in one early morning swoop.  The aftermath of “The Day” forces Randy to assume responsibility and soon leads a small group of survivors through the day to day horrors of living in a contaminated zone.

This book is chilling and realistic in its depiction of the cold war nightmare.  Pat Frank’s multiple careers as a journalist and a government consultant gave him firsthand knowledge of politics and a sense of the aftermath of a nuclear war free of the duck and cover propaganda.  His cold, journalistic writing style reflects his pragmatic knowledge on the subject.  The survivors face radiation poisoning, starvation, the loss of all modern conveniences, disease, and predators, animal and human.  Nothing is romanticized.

Having been written in 1959, it feels dated only from the sociological perspective.  The depictions of the town’s inhabitants make you think of “The Andy Griffith Show”, with a lot less humor.  Women and African-Americans are stereotypically portrayed, boys have to become men of the house, and doctors smoke pipes and make house calls.  Some statements made me cringe.like (paraphrasing) “Can’t leave women alone without a man”.  But at the same time, Frank allows the women and African-Americans to rise to the task of surviving together as much as the white men in their small interdependent community.  No one is taken for granted, and neighbors work together.

But despite Randy’s little group of survivors coming together to help each other, they have to face the rest of the dangers around them.  This mostly comes in the form of the inhabitants of the main part of Fort Repose, its seamy subdivision, and traveling bands of highwaymen.  When I first read this book, it was exciting and scary.  This time through, I became depressed and terrified.  It invoked my worst fears of not being able to provide for myself.  I found myself reflecting on the differences between 1959 and now.  There are so many more people, and our reliance on technology and the supply chain make surviving such an event seem nearly impossible.  It makes me understand the doomsday preppers a little better.  For people who are too young to remember the societal fear of the cold war era, imagine Zombie Apocalypse without zombies, but with something invisible poisoning the air you breathe and the ground you walk on. 

I’m giving this book five stars out of five.  It meets the criteria of being an excellent book while producing a very strong emotional response.  Sure, the book has that “straight white male from the golden age of SF” problems, but it an awesome reminder of how close we came to destroying ourselves with politics, technology, and fear and how close we still are today.

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