In 1959, the world stood on the brink of disaster. The Cold War was at its height, the arms race was escalating, and the US was trailing behind in the space race. Enter Pat Frank and his novel Alas, Babylon. Written in that crucial year, Frank dared to ask the question that no one wanted to ask but everyone feared the answer to; What if nuclear war occurred? In 1959, this was a very real possibility, and Frank’s willingness to ask the question, and military expertise caused his apocalyptic fiction to sell very well, making it an instant science fiction classic.
The story takes place in the small Central Florida town of Fort Repose. Ideally located, when the nuclear bombs strike Orlando and Tampa, its particular geography spares it harm from any of the fallout. Randy Bragg, descendant of the town’s founder, ne’er do well, and ladies man, finds himself in charge of securing the safety of the town, both from external and internal forces.
Pat Frank took the title of the book from Revelation. Alas, Babylon refers to the utter and complete destruction of that hedonistic society so well known in the time of the Old and New Testaments. In this case, Babylon is a metaphor for both the United States and its rival, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In their pursuit of power over each other, the world is very nearly destroyed.
Alas, Babylon tried to wake up its readers to the reality of the political and cultural implications of the arms race. Should nuclear war occur, life would go on, but be vastly different from what had come before. Sexism and racism would become non-existent, laws would lose meaning, and culture (art, music, theatre) would be subsumed in the need simply to survive.
Unlike other apocalyptic fiction written around the same time, Alas, Babylon is actually hopeful. The story ends on a high note as civilization begins to rebuild itself. Whereas books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies have man revert to barbarism in the event of tragedy, Alas, Babylon sees hope in the indomitable human spirit, and in man’s faith in himself.
Typical of science fiction writes of the time, Pat Frank is a humanist, a believer in the ultimate goodness of man. Randy Bragg, the hero, steps up and becomes a leader, a man who relies on his wits and strength to pull his family and friends through the crisis. And always, there is the hope that they will and can survive in their own strength.
This novel is fascinating to read. It provides insight into the thinking of the boomer generation, as well as being a novel whose theme of hope resonates even today. Whereas Frank saw nuclear holocaust as the great tragedy, some might see the rise of religious fundamentalism or global warming as the great threat of our generation. But Frank saw past that. Alas, Babylon’s story of hope and rebuilding from the ashes shows the reader that no matter the tragedy, man will seek order in the chaos, rather than revert to barbarism.