“Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come”
A portion of that line from Revelations is a code phrase that Colonel Mark Bragg, U.S. Air Force has with his little brother Randolph (Randy Bragg). The scene is 1950’s Florida, the small river town of Fort Repose. A sleepy isolated burg, Mark has sent his wife and children to stay with Randy along with the message.
Geopolitical tensions have been rising, from spy satellites to conflict in the Middle East. Events are rapidly moving toward a head. The Missile Gap and technological superiority on the part of the Warsaw Pact means that for the moment, the Soviet Union has an advantage over the United States. This imbalance is a temporary advantage, perhaps one large enough to use.
The code phrase’s meaning, then? Nuclear War is nigh.
Alas, Babylon (1959) Pat Frank, explores the classic trope of what happens after The End. Several years before the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly made the story a horrific reality, Alas, Babylon primarily focuses on what happens in the isolated town in Florida. Fort Repose turns out to be in a relatively uncontaminated zone. As the rest of the area around, and most of the U.S. is a radioactive hellhole, Fort Repose is clean. Clean…but terribly alone and isolated.
While the novel has trickles of information from outside, and is about the community of Fort Repose as a whole as it deals with the crisis, the real focus of this novel is Randy. Nowhere near as ambitious or accomplished as his now-dead brother, nuclear war is, ironically, his chance to grow and develop as a person and as a leader. Randy is a driving force in the town to reorganize it, keep it a going concern, and bring people together.
The novel also explores new social orders and dynamics in the wake of catastrophe. Money quickly becomes worthless in the isolated community, of course. Shared work and cooperation are the new building blocks of the social fabric of the town, now. In addition, the casual racism and sexism prevalent in the town before the Nuclear War gets pointedly corrected. The novel doesn’t quite hit the reader over the head, but the futility and uselessness of such prejudices toward minorities and in the struggle for survival is made clear. The fact that the African-American mechanic Malachai is the most competent left in town after the bombs fall accentuates the point. Libby’s psychology degree is crucial in understanding and helping alleviate the pressures of the situation on the community
There are plenty of careful, well done details. The switch-over from typical town to isolated, community working together is a slow and not always smooth process. The dangers of radioactive jewelry from Miami. Pets going feral (poor Anthony and Cleo!). Banditry. Trying to keep a basic amount of infrastructure going, when there is little prospect of the Federal Government or anyone else coming over the horizon. In other hands, this novel might have devolved into a fantasy of libertarianism, or winner-takes-all barbarism. Alas, Babylon is much more interested in the power of people, and how a community is stronger than even the residents realize, when they are forced to work together.
I wonder if the Battlestar Galactica reboot was inspired by this novel in one respect. After the bombs fall and the President and much of the government are wiped out, it is the Secretary of Education, as the surviving ranking member of the president’s cabinet that winds up as the new President of the United States.
Sound familiar, President Roslin?
Unlike novels like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and George R Stewart’s Earth Abides , Alas, Babylon stands out as a optimistic look at life after The End. It’s not easy for the residents of Fort Repose, and numerous challenges face the characters in the novel. Unlike the aforementioned and many other catastrophe novels, however, there is a sense of hope in the story of Fort Repose residents. While the story and the Cold War may be artifacts of the past now, the theme of humanity rebuilding and warming themselves in the light of a new day after the fall of terrible darkness is eternal.