I’ve mentioned before that I have a penchant for reading bleak, dark, sometimes post-apocalyptic stories. That’s how I ended up last year reading the dismal attempt by Cormac McCarthy to add to the post-apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction.
To be honest, that read caused me to shy away from this particular subgenre for a little while. That is, until I found the copy of Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon that I had bought during my last trip to the local used bookstore. I don’t really know what caused me to buy this book, as I had never heard of it prior to finding it in the sci-fi section. I found the cover to be striking enough that I read the back cover blurb on a whim. When it sounded like something that I would find intriguing, I went ahead and added it to my pile of purchases.
[Subsequently, I haven’t been back to this particular used bookstore, since this is the kind of scenario that occurred each time I went there. In for a penny, in for…at least 10 books each time I walked out of the store.]
In all the ways that McCarthy’s story failed me, I believe Frank’s novel succeeded. In fact, I would rank this very high on my admittedly short list of experiences with such novelizations. Frank provides us with his take on what might have happened had the Cold War escalated into the constantly feared nuclear attack by Russians on American soil. Having been written in 1959, this was one of the first post-apocalyptic tales written during the height of the nuclear age and subsequent nuclear fears. Focusing on the town of Fort Repose, Florida, it tells of the survival of protagonist Randy Bragg and his circle of friends, lovers, and neighbors after massive nationwide nuclear attacks on all of America’s major cities, including the locations of all major military outposts.
What I found most intriguing about Frank’s tale, especially in comparison with the bleakness of McCarthy’s novel, is the surprising optimism of the story. Whether a genuine belief or perhaps a nationalistic attempt to placate the fears of the masses that, yes, we will survive anything because we are Americans, Frank puts forth a scenario that, while reflective of a dismal expectancy should something like this actually occur, remains hopeful. The protagonist and his co-survivors continue to push forward, continue to succeed in ways that are surprising and pleasing. There are pitfalls and there are heart-rending moments, but overall, Frank shows a collection of characters with an undaunted communal will to survive and thrive.
Additionally, while McCarthy presented a scenario in which all bets are off and to the most violent and ruthless go the spoils, Frank seemed determined to show us that not even something as destructive as nuclear fallout will bend the will of the upstanding American citizen. These survivors are not ones to be frightened or defeated by the appearance of scurrilous looters. They are determined, cautiously optimistic, and convinced that continuing to do what is right and just is the way to move forward, even when the enforcers of those right and just rules of play are no longer in effect. Perhaps this was nothing more than an exercise in convincing Americans that this is how we must remain, should nuclear attack ever become more than just a threat or a deeply ingrained fear, but regardless of its purpose or intent, it was an intriguing look at the mindset of one of the Americans who lived through those fright-heavy “duck and cover” years.
Final Verdict: Although this book at times dove deeply into the language of military and warfare (two things that admittedly do not hold my attention if they go on for long stretches), I found myself unable to stop reading, even when I was well into the time of night when I usually am settling down to sleep. I found this to be a very interesting peek into a period of American history about which I know only what is written in scholastic texts. Whether correct or conceived, it was well worth my time and shall remain a part of my library.