Thursday, February 24, 2011

No One Wins in Nuclear War

The day after the bomb dropped the thousands of years of "progress" that had covered the treacheries and weaknesses of ordinary man with a thin veneer of civilization were dissolved and melted like snow in the desert's dusty face. 
Then-- the law of the jungle reigned, but in the wreckage a few courageous survivors, men and women with the guts to have hope, were determined to build a new and better world on the ruins of the old. This is their story.

Title: Alas, Babylon
Author: Pat Frank
Start & Finished: 2/20/11
Published: 1959
Publisher: J.B. Lippincott
Pages: 312
Genre: Dystopian/ Post- Apocalyptic

Reporter, government official, war correspondent, philanderer, alcoholic, and fisherman Harry Hart Frank did a lot in his life but it's the novels he published under his nickname Pat Frank that got the most attraction, especially his magnum opus Alas, Babylon. Mr. Frank said that he got the idea for the book when a friend asked him a question that he himself had been pondering, “What do you think would happen if the Russkies hit us when we weren’t looking?” After replying that he thought we would win but with a casualty of fifty or sixty million, his friend said, “What a depression that would make!” After relating this incident in the foreward of Alas, Babylon Pat Frank said, “I doubt if he realized the exact nature and extent of the depression-- which is why I am writing this book.”

This story takes place in the fictional town of Fort Repose which is in Central Florida but based upon another real life small town called Mandarin and then set in the location of the town of Mount Dora. This book is one of the first post-apocalyptic novels written during the Atomic Era. Frank did do his research, from reading the Bible (which is where the title comes from, in Revelations) to visiting Cape Canaveral to consult with air command officials. He even called up a few doctors so Doctor Dan would be authentic. He also calls upon his time in the service as well as his prowess as a fisherman (he lived on a lake). It was said that he was a consultant of both the Department of Defense and NASA too. What he knew and what he learned during the course of writing Alas, Babylon and a few other of his books, Mr. Frank applied to real life such as buying canned food, bottled water, and building a shelter for his family. He even wrote a nonfiction book called How to Survive the H-Bomb and Why.

Alas Babylon is about adapting to the circumstances by learning to live like your great-great-great grandparents did and at the very center it's about family. Everything the main character Randy Bragg does is for his family; his blood relatives (brother's wife and children) as well as the adoptive family of all his nearby neighbors and the town doctor too. Though I enjoyed all the characters; especially little Ben Franklin, Randy was definitely my favorite and the most relatable for me. In the book there’s also a bit about the spirit and faith in and of man too and unlike other stories found in this genre (the barbarism of Lord of the Flies comes to mind), this book does end on a bleak but hopeful note. However, I believe after what Mr. Frank had seen all over the world and heard from his friends in the military, that he wrote this book as mainly a wake-up call about just how unprepared America is for war (or even natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina).  After all, General Curtis LeMay; whom at the time was the current head of the SAC (and who is quoted in the book), was to have said "this man must have been reading my mail" after he had finished reading Alas, Babylon.

It is a post-apocalyptic novel but it's also set in the present (the present being the time it was published, 1959) and it is a glance into not only the lifestyle but the prejudices back then too. However, it’s also completely realistic and is easily applied to life today. I may not be old enough to remember the heyday of the threats of the nuclear holocaust in the Cold War time period which was going on before and after Alas, Babylon's publication but reading it does make one aware just how dependent the human race is on all our wonderful modern conveniences. This fact hit home for me a few years ago after Hurricane Katrina when we (and our town) was without power for a few days. That was pretty scary for me then since I had never before experienced something like that and all told, we got off pretty easy because of the area we were in. I couldn't even imagine living in a world like the setting of this book with no end in sight.

Stephen King's The Stand is not only one of my favorite books, it's also one of the books I re-read most often and up till recently it never occurred to me that I'm a huge dystopian fan. Yet I've loved every dystopian novel I've ever read including Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and James Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began. That’s also counting Alas, Babylon which I read for the first time back in my junior year of high school when it was required reading. The teacher Mrs. Harris actually gave me a copy since I enjoyed it so much! I had forgotten a good bit of the story but I think I may have loved it even more this time around.

Favorite Quotes
“LeMay says the only way a general can win a modern war is not fight one. Our whole raison d'ĂȘtre was deterrent force. When you don’t deter them any longer, you lose. I think we lost some time ago, because the last five Sputniks have been reconnaissance satellites. They’ve been mapping us, with infrared and transistor television, measuring us for the Sunday punch.”Randy felt angry. He felt cheated. “Why hasn’t anybody-- everybody been told about this?”Mark shrugged. “You know how it is-- everything that comes in is stamped secret or top secret or cosmic or something and the only people who dare declassify anything are the big wheels right at the top, and the people at the top hold conferences and somebody says, ‘Now let’s not be hasty. Let’s not alarm the public.’ So everything stays secret or cosmic. Personally, I think everybody ought to be digging or evacuating right this minute. Maybe if the other side knew we were digging, if they knew that we knew, they wouldn’t try to get away with it.”
Pete began to play the cash register with two fingers while the car boy, awed, filled the big sacks. Randy was aware that seven or eight women, lined up behind him, counted his purchases, fascinated. He heard one whisper, “Fifteen cans of coffee-- fifteen!” The line grew, and he was conscious of a steady, complaining murmur. Unaccountably, he felt guilty. He felt that he ought to face these women and shout, “All of you! All of you buy everything you can!” It wouldn’t do any good. They would be certain he was mad.
Why should he be so upset about the remark of a thirteen-year-old boy? When he was sure the children slept in the back seat, he said, “They take it calmly, almost as a matter of course, don’t they?”“Yes,” Helen said. “You see, all their lives, ever since they’ve known anything, they’ve lived under the shadow of war-- atomic war. For them the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it.” “They’re conditioned,” Randy said. “A child of the nineteenth century would quickly go mad with fear, I think, in the world of today. It must have been pretty wonderful to have lived in the years, say, between 1870 and 1914, when peace was the normal condition and people really were appalled at the idea of war, and believed there’d never be a big one. A big one was impossible, they used to say. It would cost too much. It would disrupt the world trade and bankrupt everybody. Even after the first World War people didn’t accept war as normal. They had to call it The War to End War or we wouldn’t have fought it. Helen, what has become of us?”
What had jolted Randy from sleep-- he would not learn all the facts for a long, a very long time after-- were two nuclear explosions, both in the megaton range, the warheads of missiles lobbed in by submarines. The first obliterated the SAC base at Homestead, and incidentally sank and returned to the sea a considerable area of Florida’s tip. Ground Zero of the second missile was Miami’s International Airport, not far from the heart of the city. Randy’s couch had been shaken by shock waves transmitted through the earth, which travel faster than through the air, so he had been awake when the blast and sound arrived a little later. Gazing at the glow to the south, Randy was witnessing, from a distance of almost two hundred miles, the incineration of a million people.
“I don’t know where, or when, or how. But as soon as school reopens in Fort Repose, or anywhere around, you go. You may have to walk.”“Golly, Randy, walk! It’s three miles to town.”“Your grandfather used to walk to school in Fort Repose. When he was your age there wasn’t any school busses. When he couldn’t hitch a ride in a buggy, or one of the early automobiles, he walked.” Randy put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s get going. I guess we’ll both have to learn to walk again.” 
In block letters he wrote:“DANGER! KEEP OUT! RADIATION!”“You’d better put something else on there,” Randy said. “There are a lot of people around here who still don’t know what radiation means.”“Do you really think so?”“I’m positive of it. They’ve never seen it, or felt it. They hear about it, but I don’t think they believe it. They didn’t believe it could kill them before The Day- if they thought of it at all-- and I don’t think they believe it now. You’d better add something they understand, like Poison.” 
“Who cares about fish? If I grow up I’m not going to be a fisherman!”Helen called from the kitchen window. The children disappeared.Randy said, “Did you ever hear a little girl say ‘If I grow up’ before?”“No, I never did. It gives me the creeps.”

First Paragraph: In Fort Repose, a river town in Central Florida, it was said that sending a message by Western Union was the same as broadcasting it over the combined networks. This was not entirely true. It was true that Florence Wechek, the manager, gossiped. Yet she judiciously classified the personal intelligence that flowed under her plump fingers, and maintained a prudent censorship over her tongue. The scandalous and the embarrassing she excised from her conversation. Sprightly, trivial, and harmless items she passed on to friends, thus enhancing her status and relieving the tedium of spinsterhood. If your sister was in trouble, and wired for money, the secret was safe with Florence Wechek. But if your sister bore a legitimate baby, its sex and weight would soon be known all over town.

Article on Pat Frank that include interviews with his family
Book Wikipedia
Author Wikipedia

LOUD! Fan made promotional trailer

Source: Personal copy, courtesy of my high school literature teacher

Picture Explanations: 
Mushroom Cloud: see fourth quote
Boy Fishing: Ben Franklin fishing. A good bit of their food nowadays comes from the river
Armadillo: When the fish stop biting and the armadillos start rooting up the garden, the family learns that they taste pretty good!


  1. Dystopia scares me in a way horror never could. I hadn't heard of this before, so thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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  2. We only lost power for about 36 hours after Katrina, but the fascinating thing to me was that it was a little on the Lord of the Flies side with people fighting over gas for their generators (we don't have a generator, so we just sweated a lot) and stripping food off the shelves without regard to others. I just looked at my review of Alas, Babylon and I did talk about Katrina and how it was so close to describing our own experience, in many ways. Great book, scary as hell. Love your review!

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  3. Great review! I enjoyed this book. It was kind of nice taking a step back from all of the fun fantasy of zombies running amok after an outbreak and taking a look at a more realistic post-apocalyptic experience.

    And I, too, LOVE "The Stand" and re-read it often. Have you read Swan Song by Robert McCammon yet? If not, give it a shot. It's another favorite. It has a little more fantasy thrown in, but I love it!

  4. It sounds like this book has stood the test of time very well. It was certainly pioneering.

  5. Nymeth: Oh I would love to hear your opinion on this if you read it!

    Bookfool: We didn't have a generator either and I think we didn't have power for about as long as you, maybe a little longer, don't quite remember. The lines at the grocery stores here were pretty scary and you had to go to Mobile to get gas (where the lines were LONG!) but we had a Red Cross come by giving out pre-packaged meals too.

    Heather: Oh I don't do zombies. No, I haven't read Swan Song but I LOVED his Boy's Life. I'll have to try that one.

    Bermudaonion: It doesn't seem very dated at all actually. I hope to find more books kind of like it.

  6. You've definitely convince me that I need to read this one. It sounds really good! Great review!

  7. After you mentioned that this was your favourite read so far this year, even if it is a reread, I had to come see the review. I added it to my list and hopefully the library will have it!

  8. I do love dystopia. Horrible futures that I would never like to experience, but that I still like to read about

  9. I think this "throwback" to how it used to be done is a hallmark of dystopian literature, actually. It seems to show up in so many of these types of books I read. It makes me thing that I should brush up on my gardening and farming skills.

  10. Dystopian stories can be terrifying. This one sounds like a good read. The only dysotopian book I've read so far is Fahrenheit 451. I do have The Stand in my TBR.

  11. Samantha & Kailana: I hope you like it! It should be pretty easy to get ahold of since it's still required reading for some high school classes.

    Blodeuedd: They're always so interesting! I always like the ones where everyone has to start the world over.

    Jenners: These are my favorite kinds! They do make me want to be a bit better prepared myself. I always appreciate the modern luxuries a bit more after I finish one.

    Naida: It has a bit of the same tone as Farenheit, maybe because of the time period they were written in? Gotta read The Stand! It's one of my absolute favorites. I don't think I've re-read another book more.

  12. I hadn't heard of this one. Sounds worth checking out. I haven't read too many dystopians, but there's something about them that's just creepy and very entertaining.


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