Literature / Alas, Babylon
is a 1959 novel by American writer Pat Frank (the pen name of Harry Hart Frank). It was one of the first post-apocalyptic novels of the nuclear age and remains popular fifty years after it was first published. The novel deals with the effects of a nuclear war on the small isolated town of Fort Repose, Florida.
At the height of the Cold War
between the United States and the Soviet Union, Fort Repose resident Randy Bragg, while making a comfortable enough living, is drifting through life with little real purpose. His brother Mark, an officer in the Air Force, warns him that nuclear war is likely imminent. Mark, who lives in Omaha, sends his wife, Helen, and his children, Ben Franklin and Peyton, to stay with Randy. While he waits for them to arrive, Randy warns his friends, including his neighbors-cum-sharecroppers, the Henrys, and his girlfriend, Lib McGovern. He stockpiles food, and picks up Helen and her children at the airport, amid reports that tensions are rapidly escalating between the two superpowers. The next morning, war breaks out, and nuclear weapons destroy all of Florida's major cities. Washington, D.C. is also destroyed; before their radio communication is cut off, the townsfolk learn that a low-level Cabinet official has become president. The power soon dies, Fort Repose is completely isolated, and with the help of Liz, the Henrys and his doctor friend Daniel Gunn, Randy takes up the challenge of organizing a militia against highwaymen and leading the town into a new life of agrarian self-sufficiency.
In the foreword of the 2005 edition of Alas, Babylon
, David Brin admits that the book was instrumental in shaping his views on nuclear war and had an effect on his own book, The Postman
Tropes in this book:
- After the End: Sort of. The US, its closest allies, and the Soviet Union are pummeled, yet the rest of the world survives relatively intact.
- Apocalypse Anarchy: After The Day a not insignificant fraction of the town get dead drunk. A smaller fraction just gets dead. In the months that follow, the citizens of Fort Repose have to learn that "highwayman" wasn't always a romantic figure...
- Apocalypse How: Scope: Regional. The Soviet Union and United States simply trade nukes and much of the world is not a part of that war-save for Britain, France, and West Germany, which are implied to have been hit due to the lack of broadcasts from those countries.
- Blind Without 'Em: Dan. He manages to cope eventually.
- Bus Crash: The last time we see Mark, he's at AFB Offut anticipating the Soviet attack. At the end of the book it's revealed that Offut itself was nuked and Mark was killed.
- Cats Are Mean: The first person to respond appropriately to the end of civilization is a cat; it's hungry and eats one of Flo's lovebirds.
- China Takes Over the World: The Big Three after the war are China, Japan and India, who stayed out of World War III and weren't nuked.
- Cosy Catastrophe: At times, the writing style almost resembles something from a boy's adventure novel. Part of this is because, while most of Florida is nuked, Fort Repose itself is the biggest clear zone in the state.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Invoked to showcase how very drastic the changes would be for a small town after a nuclear war. A man who took up beekeeping as a hobby was eccentric before The Day. After The Day, he was wealthy because honey was so valued a commodity. On The Day itself, Randy drives into town and buys a few pounds of salt at $20 a pound (roughly $200 a pound in today's money), because the customers cleared out the store and the owner, foolishly in Randy's opinion, still values cash.
- Didn't Think This Through: Randy stockpiles more than a hundred dollars worth of food (closer to a thousand dollars today), and most of it needs to be refrigerated or kept in the freezer. One of the first consequences of the war is the power going out (ironically, he realizes his error when it's too late to buy non-perishables).
- Driven to Suicide: The bank president, when he realizes how worthless his money has become.
- During the War
- Felony Misdemeanor: The bandits who have murdered a number of people and stolen Dr. Gunn's medical supplies and car also broke his only pair of glasses. He's the town's only physician and he's so near-sighted he can barely see without them.
- Humans Are Flawed: The people of Fort Repose don't respond well on The Day. Afterward, they settle into a stable living arrangement, some better off than others. Randy's ex, Rita, is unhappy that someone clubbed her poodle with an ax handle so they could eat it. Also, a number of bandits do horrible things before Randy organizes a militia, including killing the pharmacist, the sheriff, and his deputy. Another group of bandits murder the beekeeper and his wife and club down town physician, Dan Gunn, breaking his glasses (effectively blinding him, as there are no replacement glasses likely forthcoming).
- Humans Are Survivors: The town of Fort Repose was a small, Southern town in the 1950s not yet fully adapted to electricity or air conditioning, and it's built around farming, so the switch isn't too hard. Plus they're on a river, and they have orange groves, and a physician who wanted to work in third world nations before being sidelined by alimony payments to an ex-wife with a gambling problem.
- I Choose to Stay: When the military gives the protagonists a choice between staying in the enclave of Fort Repose and evacuating, they decide to stay, having built up enough self-sufficiency to survive for quite a while. One reason for this is undoubtedly that the inhabitants of Fort Repose, by the time the Air Force makes contact with them, are better off in some ways than people in the "uncontaminated" areas of the country. For instance, the Air Force personnel are ecstatic to be able to drink orange juice again, commenting that it's simply unavailable in Denver, the new capital.
- Japan Takes Over the World: The Big Three after the war are China, Japan and India, who stayed out of World War III and weren't nuked.
- Karmic Death: Porky Logan scavenges some jewelry and fancy watches (unaware that they have been contaminated by fallout) and dies of radiation poisoning when he tries to wear one.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: On The Day, half the town of Fort Repose is trying to contact various people through the Western Union telegraph office. The bank manager is trying to get advice from the Federal Reserve branch in Jacksonville when there's a bright flash from the Northeast and the telegraph stops chattering.
Flo: I'm sorry, Edgar, but Jacksonville isn't there any more.
- Literary Allusion Title: "Alas, Babylon" comes from a verse in The Bible. After hearing a local pastor quote the verse over and over, it then becomes Randy and Mark's code phrase for "trouble."
- Mama Bear: On the morning of The Day, Helen is freaking out until Peyton is blinded by looking directly at a blast. Once she's aware of the need to help her daughter, she becomes calm and capable once more.
- Morally Bankrupt Banker: Edgar Quisenberry, whose only criterion for whether or not someone has value is if they have money (or the equivalent in property/realty). Naturally, when money becomes worthless, this leads to his suicide.
- Mr. Exposition: Randy's older brother Mark only has two roles. First he shows up and explains how and why the world is doomed. Then he dies off screen.
- Naughty Birdwatching: A comic-relief subplot involves accusations of this.
- Pair the Spares: Helen, meet Dan. Dan, this is Helen.
- Pyrrhic Victory: It is stated at the end that the United States did win the war but the cost was millions of dead, large areas of land are unlivable, and the United States is no longer a superpower.
- Hell, it's not even a first world country, anymore!
- Or even second world (something like the Industrial Age U.S.)!
- Hell, using grain for something as trivial as making alcohol is viewed as very nearly treasonous!
- Sacrificial Lion: Randy's older brother dies off-screen in his role as ranking Air Force officer in Nuclear War Central Headquarters. Malachai, quiet and humble mechanic who kept River Road functioning, is the only casualty of the mission to eliminate the bandits preying on Fort Repose.
- Savage Wolves: Preacher Henry's been losing pigs. Caleb and Ben have to hunt it down. Turns out it's a German Shepherd gone feral in the aftermath of The Day.
- She's Got Legs: Randy first meets Libby when he pulls up to her dock and sees her legs sticking up in the air.
Randy: Hello, legs.
Libby: You must be Randy Bragg.
- Shipper on Deck: Libby makes it her mission to pair up Helen with a perfectly suitable partner, largely so she'll leave Randy alone.
- Shown Their Work: The town of Fort Repose is based off Mount Dora, a town in Florida (today a suburb of Orlando) where the author lived at the time, and accurately references other small towns in the same area.
- Naturally, being host to a major air force base at the time, Orlando ends up taking two nukes.
- Society Marches On: Or back again, or marched too far, or something. Breastfeeding and home canning, both widespread in today's society, are portrayed as relics which have all but disappeared by the 1950s, but which must be reluctantly revived in the conditions prevailing after The Day.
Helen: What happens to babies?
Doctor: Evaporated or condensed canned milk... while it lasts. After that, it's mother's milk.
Helen: That will be old-fashioned, won't it?
- Trapped in Containment: The entire state of Florida is declared a "Contaminated Zone," effectively isolating Fort Repose.
- Unexpected Successor: The post-Day president was previously the female Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
- Wise Beyond Their Years: This is the impression the adults have of Ben and Peyton, whose education and childhood with television has prepared them for the coming apocalypse far better than their elders expected. Also, they're better prepared than their elders.
- World War III