Alas, Babylon is famous not for its story or characters or writing. Ultimately, it became famous because of its unique place in the history of apocalyAlas, Babylon is famous not for its story or characters or writing. Ultimately, it became famous because of its unique place in the history of apocalyptic literature. It is remembered alongside Schute’s On The Beach; in a way, a sister novel. It depicts nuclear war in a completely realistic, utterly non-sci-fi manner that makes it stand out from other apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic classics of the time, such as The Day of the Triffids. Perhaps the most notable fact of the book is its author: Pat Frank. Frank wrote a few other novels, none of which I’ve read, but was known at the time as an expert on nuclear war in relation to American defense and the Cold War because of his unique position straddling the line between government and media. This was, essentially, a novel from an insider. (Schute’s career as a pilot, no less honorable, did not give him the same “insider information” edge that Frank had, in my opinion.)
The novel is difficult to judge on its own merits, and for good reason. A number of set pieces in the novel, particularly the altruistic man beset upon by highway robbers, the suicide of well-to-do businessmen, and the immediate breakdown of racist thought, have become such well-defined tropes in today’s world of post-apocalyptic fiction that they are nothing short of trite – if not for the notable fact that they are among the first of their kind. Rather than deride Frank as a copycat, he should be lauded as a man worth of copying, more than seventy years later.
So, judged on its own merits, not in relation to its descendants, I have quite a few good things to say about Alas, Babylon. The protagonist, Randy Bragg, is interesting and engaging – a well to do, quasi-aristocratic, quasi-playboy with some significant military experience in Korea. Bragg discovers, along with the reader, a number of horrifying realities brought about by the apocalypse that he should have foreseen, but simply could not have. It is obvious to us that refrigeration is one of the first things to go, but we don’t necessarily remember that without refrigeration, salt is absolutely necessary (for some non-food items too, like tanning leather for shoes,) and no one really knows how to harvest salt. Throughout, a few clever metaphors are used for the decline of society, such as the primacy of hearty guppies and catfish over flashy, tropical fish. The military service of Randy in Korea and the nearby Admiral in WWII frame the contemporary action as something uncivilized and alien to the Florida landscape. And, of course, the novel’s title is a reference to the book of Revelations and the swift destruction of Babylon, a city that, like America, believed itself to be untouchable and believed its prosperity to be evidence of divine favor. How wrong they were.
There are a number of issues with the text that I don’t believe can be whitewashed over the last 75 years. Primarily, a number of important milestones in character development and narrative progress are glossed over for a reason I cannot identify beyond poor talent in the author. Bragg’s niece and nephew accept the loss of their father far too easily. Details of the poor living conditions of many around them are glossed over (perhaps this is because the novel was written in a more modest time?) The crazy cat lady next door appears to be a hardy guppy, ready to survive, despite all evidence to the contrary. The novel’s one action scene is confused and unclear, resulting in a character dead from a gunshot offscreen, but in the middle of the action. Perhaps most obviously, Lib, Bragg’s on again, off again girlfriend, is revealed to be strong and supportive, despite the first 80 pages or show building her up as a shallow debutant. The characters decide to wed, although there is not even the hint of romantic chemistry in their relationship. They decide to hold the marriage the next day without discussing in the least the differences between this wedding and what they had expected as children. Her father has nothing to say on the matter. The fear of pregnancy, infinitely more dangerous in the apocalypse, is only obliquely referenced (again, probably a results of the day and age more than the author’s failings.) What’s more, the day of the engagement, Helen, Bragg’s sister-in-law, has a semi-psychotic break down where she believes him to be her husband, Randy’s older brother, Mark. The incident is never referenced again, and Helen acts as matron of honor the very next day. This is even more unacceptable because Mark heavily implies at the beginning of the novel that should he die, he would be supportive of Randy taking his place as Helen’s husband, so we, the audience, are expecting Helen’s breakdown far in advance of it actually occurring. The whole issue of the Helen/Randy romance and the Randy/Lib wedding the next day is so bizarre that I looked online to see if my copy of the novel had pages ripped out. It didn’t. Those literary sins cannot be forgiven, I believe, simply because of the time between publication and now.
Still, there are a few notable occurrences in the novel that truly set Alas, Babylon apart. For example, the American Government is shown to be genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of the torn nation, and offer some small assistance in long-term rebuilding the nation. The government is humble but honest, in stark contrast to many other post-apocalyptic works where the remnants of the government are little more than bullies with better technology.
But the most notable departure from standard post-apocalyptic tropes is that the novel has a note of hope. Bragg actually manages to build a self-sustaining community. They defeat the villains of highway robbers, radiation poisoning, and starvation. When offered a position that might be better for himself and family in the long term, Bragg and Lib choose to stay in the fictional town of Fort Repose to continue building the community they have started. Alas, Babylon might not show you how to rebuild civilization, but it shows you that it can be done. This hopeful tone was rejected by the otherwise similar On The Beach, and by nearly every other novel within the genre since. I can’t tell you if it’s right or wrong, but you must agree, it is singular in its tone.
All in all, Alas, Babylon is remarkable as a seed from which grew a long, strong tradition of literature, as well as film and games. It has not aged well, however, and many of its greatest failings cannot be attributed to the different culture that produced it. For those like myself interested in apocalyptic literature, it is a must read. For the casual reader, it can be put aside with no guilt. ...more
I’m not one for feel good stories. To me, literature is all about engaging and expanding the mind, and not many fairy tale endings get you thinking abI’m not one for feel good stories. To me, literature is all about engaging and expanding the mind, and not many fairy tale endings get you thinking about much. In high school, I was the Hamlet guy, while all the girls were more Midsummer Night’s Dream. Till now, I might have said that a love story with a happy ending would never mean as much as a Romeo and Juliet tragedy. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima made me a believer.
The story is the most familiar one in the world. A young boy, Shinji, falls in love with the newcomer, a beautiful pearl diver named Hatsue. Their innocent love begins at first sight. It is tested by the gossiping of the citizens of the tiny island paradise of Uta-Jima, Song Island. Against calumny, natural disaster, and the scheming of Shinji’s fellow suitor Yauso, love overcomes.
What makes this story unique, then? It is an easy read: two days for an avid reader, so it’s not the depth of plot. The tropical paradise of Song Island is beautifully brought to life by Mishima’s incredible talent at description. Neither size nor setting is enough to make such a novel stick in my mind, however. No, it is the characterization of the main characters and the beautiful message they make about morality.
Shinji and Hatsue are innocent in every sense of the word. Shinji has no understanding of love at all. His naievete comes from a pure ignorance of love. Young lovers, as I know from experience, analyze every little word and action from one another, searching for hidden meaning, fantasizing of every fairy tale ending and agonizing over every horrible possibility of being spurned. Shinji has none of this. He believes every word that Hatsue tells him. In this way, truth and love are inextricably tied together. Shinji’s knows that Hatsue’s words are both loving and true, without falling into the trap of over analyzing. In today’s world, where trusting people are often ridiculed as being gullible, Shinji’s honesty is a breath of fresh air.
The theme of innocence does not end here, however. It hits home where fairy tales cannot goes: sexuality. Shinji has not even a semblance of an understanding about sex. In a rather awkward meeting, Hatsue and Shinji see each other nude. They are shameless, refusing to hide themselves. At the first touch, however, Hatsue tells Shinji that they cannot move forward until they are married. She has an innate but illogical and inexperienced understanding that sex before marriage is wrong. Again, without questioning, Shinji trusts and falls obedient to Hatsue.
The similarities to Adam and Eve are too obvious to ignore (please note that this is all my own interpretation. Neither the characters or the author, Mishima, were Christian. This is me putting my words into Mishima’s mouth.) Both characters exhibit traits of our first parents before the Fall of Man. They are incapable of sin, and exemplify virtue. They are full of kindness: Shinji generously gives to another family in the community, and Hatsue gives a surprise gift to Shinji’s mother. Forgiveness too: Yauso, another suitor, attempts to rape Hatsue. She covers up the incident because he merely asked politely. Yauso is the evil snake in this story, personifying at least five of the Seven Deadly Sins: gluttony, sloth, lust, and wrath and envy. The lovers are, like Adam and Eve, moral despite ignorance of evil.
Not your typical love story anymore, is it? I certainly don’t think so. The title, The Sound of Waves, is a reference both to the island culture and the rushing blood in Shinji’s heart when he is with Hatsue. This book has got my blood moving too. Even amongst feel good stories, The Sound of Waves stands tall and singular. It is a breath of fresh, salty ocean air. ...more
Spring Snow is a Japanese novel from 1966 written by Yukio Mishima. Mishima is perhaps the most prolific modern Japanese modern writer, writing a dozeSpring Snow is a Japanese novel from 1966 written by Yukio Mishima. Mishima is perhaps the most prolific modern Japanese modern writer, writing a dozen plays, over one hundred short stories, forty novels and one movie. Born in 1925, Mishima famously committed seppuku, a brutal ritualistic suicide after a failed political coup at the age of 45. He is most well known for the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, a series of four novels starting with Spring Snow. The Sea of Fertility, covering over sixty years of Japanese history, is the story of four successive reincarnations of a passionate man doomed to die young.
Spring Snow tells the tale of Kiyoaki, born the perfect aristocrat-a few decades too late. A stunningly handsome nineteen-year old, Kiyo desperately needs attention in a world where aristocrats, samurai, are increasingly marginalized. He uses his charisma to keep a beautiful maiden, Satoko, on a short leash. He uses her passionate love for him to feed his insatiable ego. Of course, this “romance” is doomed from the start. When Satoko is suddenly arranged to marry a prince, Kiyo suddenly realizes that Satoko is worth fighting – and dying – for.
The rest of the story is a whirlwind meditation on passion, romance, sin, and the dying aristocracy. Despite being a classic of Eastern literature, its themes are universal across hemispheres-and time.
Mishima was less than five years from death when Spring Snow was published. How is it possible that at the age of forty this genius wrote an impossibly beautiful novel perfectly capturing the feeling of teenage boys in love? A novel as true today as it was one hundred years past and one hundred years to come.
In one of the most moving passages, Kiyo and his only friend Shigekuni Honda sit on the beach at night, examining the sea and sky. This is the border, Mishima tells us. The place where the land abruptly ends and the sea begins, just as Kiyo has suddenly ended his childhood and plunged into the dark waters of obsession. In this way, the story is about far more than a child entering adulthood. It is about leaving the shifting tide behind and swimming into the deep. ...more