Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

I've been on this whole science fiction/post apocalyptic kick lately and Alas, Babylon was the second such book I tried because I'd read about it in the after word of another book. Isn't that how you find new books?

Another book suggested was Neville Shute's On the Beach, which I read about 8 or 9 years ago when the guy at the post office suggested it. Alas, Babylon and On the Beach both deal with the world after a nuclear strike, except in Neville Shute's world, based in Australia, all human life was annihilated and Australians would soon be dead of radiation poisoning, saved on by their lower position on the globe. In Pat Frank's post nuclear holocaust world, specifically America and Fort Repose in Florida, many people died from the nuclear blasts and more of radiation poisoning, but many survived in a world without technology, electricity, and most of what modern people consider necessary: salt, medicine, antibiotics, doctors, etc.

At the beginning of Frank's novel, Randall Rowzee Bragg is on the super highway to dissipation. Randy begins with a bit of liquor in his coffee and runs around with women, many of which come from Pistolville, the other side of the nonexistent tracks in Fort Repose. His family name is old and distinguished, but Randy spends more time in the red at the bank than in the black. He's friendly and well liked, but not what one would consider a pillar of the community unless the pillar is leaning drunkenly to the side and about to topple over.

Randy gets a telegram from his brother, Colonel Mark Bragg, to meet him at a nearby Air Force base as Mark is on his way back from Puerto Rico and will touch down there to refuel. He is sending his wife and two children to stay with Randy in Fort Repose, signing his message, "Alas, Babylon," so Randy will know it's serious.

Randy goes, meets his brother, gets the bad news that there will be war with Russia, nuclear war, gets a check for five thousand dollars, and drives back to Fort Repose to the bank where he has some trouble cashing the check, but walks away with the cash and a remark to the manager of the bank that cash will be the only thing that matters in a very short time. Randy gets most of the supplies on his list and drives the next morning to get his sister-in-law, Helen, and Ben Franklin and Peyton, his nephew and niece, all of whom were reluctant to leave their father in Omaha at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) base.

Nuclear war comes with a double blinding dawn and soon the cessation of electricity amid panic and a world turned upside down where Randy becomes the strongest pillar of the community, coming alive with deadly purpose to preserve his family and his town.

Alas, Babylon was published in 1959 at the height of fear of pending nuclear war with Russia -- and Cuba -- and amid racial segregation and the struggle for civil rights. Randy Bragg lives next door to the Henrys, a black family of modest means who were once the Bragg family's slaves. The Henrys bought the land on which they live and are a major asset in sustaining life and purpose for Randy and the extended family he gathers around him. The Henrys are the difference between life and death.

Frank was writing at a time when he had intimate knowledge of politics, nuclear capabilities, and civil rights, having written about them as a war correspondent, reporter, and chief of a couple of newspapers. He knew first hand what life would be like in his family's home in Florida and the struggles he -- and indeed the country -- would face. Alas, Babylon is as true today as it was in 1959.

I found the characters engaging and amusing and wonderful in their differences and their similarities and enjoyed the change especially in Randy as he squared his shoulders and took charge. Dated though some of the information seems at a glance, Frank pegged human nature, which seldom changes. People rise and fall in times of adversity and those that surprise us the most are the people we often discount before disaster hits. I highly recommend Frank's view of America after a nuclear holocaust, not only for its insights, but for its humor and its pathos.

Since I read the Kindle version, I will warn you that there are many mistakes throughout the text with wrong words, doubled and missing words, and typos with most of the mistakes coming at the end of the book. It will take a few seconds to puzzle out what is supposed to be there, but it shouldn't slow you down too much. That is the reason for 4/5 stars when the book itself deserves a hearty 5-star review. This book stands the test of time.

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