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