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Literature / Alas, Babylon

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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 Lib, her father, 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. Alas, Babylon was also an inspiration for the TV series Jericho (2006).

Tropes in this book:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Local Sleazy Politician Porky Logan only won his re-election campaign because a pro-civil rights campaign Randy made rubbed most of the bigoted voters the wrong way. When he dies and needs to be buried (along with his irradiated valuables) in a lead lined casket that needs eight pallbearers, no one is interested in carrying his casket until they’re literally threatened at gunpoint to.
  • 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.
  • Authority in Name Only: Bubba Offenhaus, head of the local civil defense office, only took the job to increase his social status. When an actual emergency arises, he is too unmotivated to exert any authority for a while. By the one time he tries, no one is paying attention to him anymore.
  • Awful Wedded Life:
    • When Bigmouth Cullen gets sick with radiation his Lady Drunk wife’s only concern is finding out where his hidden valuables are.
    • Dan Gunn also had one such marriage to a gold-digging wife before they ended it.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Dan's much-needed glasses are smashed by raiders. 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.
  • Cool Old Guy: Admiral Hazard (Ret.) and his ham radio become the town's main source of information on what’s going on outside of Fort Repose.
  • Cool Old Lady: Alice the librarian, who refused to get rid of Civil Rights books before the war, and is the only person who hears about Mark's message and recognizes the significance behind the title phrase.
  • 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 is 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.
  • Death by Materialism; Pete Hernandez, Porky Logan and probably Bigmouth Cullen die due to hoarding radioactive jewelry and gold. Porky dies, obliviously, with his hand literally shoved into a pile of the stuff to cherish it on his sickbed. To a lesser extent, banker Edgar Quisenberry, who's Driven to Suicide when he finally gets it through his head that cash, investments, and such are valueless post-nuke.
  • 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).
  • Disconnected by Death: 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 operator on the other end immediately cuts off.
    Flo: I'm sorry, Edgar, but Jacksonville isn't there any more.
  • Doomed Hometown: Orlando for Paul Hart.
  • Driven to Suicide: The bank president, when he realizes how worthless his money has become.
  • During the War: The setting is during and after WWIII.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones:
    • Racist looter Porky Logan has a sister and niece who try to take care of him when he falls ill. He also had a wife and children once but they left him years ago.
    • Leroy Settle, one of the murderous highwaymen, is mentioned as having a mother who lives nearby.
  • Everybody Cries: In a later part of the book, after returning from an expedition, Randy finds a total of three of the female characters crying for one reason or another. Libby is crying because she was worried for his absence during said-expedition, Helen is crying because she has to spank Peyton for taking Randy's fishing boat unsupervised, and Florence is crying because something (or someone) stole her goldfish.
  • Fauxshadowing: Earlier in the story, when Ben Franklin brags about all the fish he caught, he sister responds how if she grows up, she wouldn't want to be a fisherman. This seems to imply that she's not going to live long enough to grow up, especially when she decides to take the risk of borrowing Randy's boat unsupervised. But no, she doesn't drown or anything of the sort. She comes back home safe and sound. Ironically enough, despite her protests she would ever be a fisherman, she actually solves the fish shortage by catching some bass.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: The bandits who have murdered a number of people and stolen Dr. Gunn's medical supplies and car also broke his glasses (and stole his spare pair, which were in his medical bag). He's the town's only physician and he's so near-sighted he can barely see without them.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Rita Hernandez had an abortion but isn’t portrayed as a good girl.
  • Hidden Depths: An example revealed fairly early on, but Malachi Henry, the local mechanic and yardman, takes newspapers and magazines from the trash at the places he works and as a result is perhaps the most well-read character on current events.
  • 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.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Midway through the Day, Edgar happens upon a note from his wife stating that while World War III has happened, she's still going to carry on with her day because life still goes on. On paper, this should've convinced Edgar that although money has become useless, he can still live his life if he just adapts. It doesn't, as he's adamantly convinced his wife's a fool for thinking life without money is possible.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Jerry King the local gas station owner tells Edgar the bank president that he can have the last of the gas from Jerry's garage for free, because money doesn't mean anything anymore. This helps push the materialistic Edgar over the Despair Event Horizon.
  • 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.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Randy has a playboy reputation, but recognizes that what he feels for Lib is different than anyone in the past.
  • Leg Focus: 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.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Alas, Babylon" comes from a verse in The Bible. After hearing a local pastor quote the verse over and over, it became 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.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: The author explicitly points out that the nuclear war was started, not by active malice, but a rookie Air Force pilot's attempt to take down a bogey with a missile... a missile that missed its target and blew up an important port, which caused an international ruckus that ended with nukes exchanged. Whoops. (Somewhat downplayed, though; Ensign "Peewee" Cobb's unfortunate mistake was merely the spark, and it's made clear that the Soviets were already looking for any excuse to attack the United States during what the Kremlin perceives as a window of Soviet strategic superiority.)
  • 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.
  • Mundane Luxury: Almost every single casual comfort that people used to take for granted becomes this after the town is isolated by the rest of Florida getting nuked. The breaking of something as simple as a sewing needle is considered a tragedy; the town's physician's prescription eyeglasses getting broken during a robbery, even more so. A man who took up beekeeping as a hobby before The Day is considered wealthy afterwards, as he can get almost anything he wants from trading honey.
  • Naughty Birdwatching: A comic-relief subplot involves accusations of this.
  • No Bikes in the Apocalypse: Averted, in that Alice and Florence get around using the bicycle that had belonged to the local Western Union office.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Peyton goes out of her way to fix the fish shortage by using Florence's goldfish as bait and using Randy's boat to catch them. She catches a bunch of bass at least 11 pounds at most, enough to hold everyone over until the fish come back. That's nothing to sneeze at. And how does her mother reward this amazing deed when she returns? spanking her, that's what! Granted, Peyton wasn't supposed to take the boat unsupervised, and her being spanked was a response to doing something that could've possibly gotten her killed.
  • No Healthcare in the Apocalypse: All the insulin-dependent diabetics in the community (including Lib McGovern's mother) die within a couple of weeks of "The Day", after the power goes out and refrigeration fails. The breaking of Dan Gunn's glasses by the highwaymen is also treated as a devastating blow.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Rita Hernandez when she finds out that the jewelry she's wearing is irradiated.
    • Alice when she recognizes the significant of the phrase "Alas Babylon" from Mark's telegraph after Florence gossips about it to her.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Admiral Hazard suspects that his son in the Navy died in the nuclear exchange, given that practically every non-submarine in the US Navy was destroyed. Less ambiguously, Preacher Henry outlives his younger son Malachi, who is killed by the highwaymen.
  • 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. It's been reduced to its Industrial Age level at best, to the point that 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.
  • 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.
  • Trapped in Containment: The entire state of Florida is declared a "Contaminated Zone," effectively isolating Fort Repose.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Rita becomes a lot more considerate, after Randy and Dr. Gunn alert her about her radioactive jewelry before she can get a lethal dose.
  • Unexpected Successor: The post-Day president was previously the female Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
    • The Soviets are even worse off. Their new head of state was previously the director of a waterworks plant in the middle of nowhere.
  • Vigilante Militia: After the murders of the sheriff and his deputy The Hero Randy organizes a group of his friends and neighbors to plan and execute a trap against the highwaymen who are plaguing the community after World War III.
  • Wasteland Elder: Retired Naval Admiral Hazard and librarian Alice Cooksley are both intelligent, sixtyish people who provide some good insight and advice to their younger neighbors. Preacher Henry as well, especially with his knowledge of such survival needs as finding and catching fish during a heat wave.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Bigmouth's wife drops out of the story after she takes his goods and drives off with them. Our main characters can only speculate if she'll be irradiated by the goods, have them taken at checkpoint, be robbed by highway men, or come out on top all together.
    • The same goes for the Highway men's female accomplice, who played a part in luring in Dan Gunn. She's never caught and it's never brought up if she eventually faces justice or not.
  • 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 in terms of having supplies than their elders.
  • World War III: One of the earliest literary examples, although most of it isn't seen or even heard about until much later. The only part the characters see for themselves is the few hours in which most of Florida is nuked, an event they refer to later as "The Day"; the novel from that point on is simply about surviving in the aftermath.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Pete and Rita Hernandez and Bigmouth Cullen both stockpile money and jewelry in exchange for various other trade items. They understand it’s worthless in the short term but believe that money will make a comeback sooner or later, although Randy doubts that they're right.