Books from the past: Alas, Babylon

On one of my trips through the Borders going-out-of-business sale, I picked up a recent trade paperback edition of Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank.  I have read this book, first published in 1959, several times over the years.  The date 9/80 is written in the yellowing paperback copy (printed in 1970 and sold for 95 cents) on my shelf.  Frank, who died in 1964, wrote several novels, but Alas, Babylon is the one that has survived.  I doubt if it has ever been out of print.

Now and then I have read a book I remembered with great admiration only to wonder why I ever liked it so much.  But when I recently reread Alas, Babylon, it was everything I remembered.  The novel tells the story of a town in central Florida in the wake of nuclear war.  Now I’m not nostalgic for the bad old days of Duck and Cover and Mutually Assured Destruction, although I remember them well, but that was never the part of the book that drew me in.  The world has changed, and for all that goes on around us, we no longer live under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.  When it was published, the first part of the book must have seemed, as they say, “ripped from the headlines.”  Not so much today, although the catastrophe does start with the accidental bombing of a port in Syria.

The book has a special charm for me because of the location and the era.  My family moved from Milwaukee to south Florida in 1957, and although I haven’t lived in Florida since 1969, it will always have a place in my heart.  I was twelve when Alas, Babylon was published, and probably not much older when I first read it.  It was the kind of book my parents read voraciously and shared with me.  I was the age of the children in the book, who accepted nuclear war without much surprise.  We grew up believing it was a very real possibility.  (Living as we did in the suburbs of Miami, in Frank’s scenario we would have been vaporized in our sleep.)

It was always the aftermath of The Day that fascinated me, as life goes on without telephones or electricity (or telegrams, a reminder of how communications have changed in fifty years).  Television is barely mentioned, radio is greatly missed.  One image that has remained with me since I first read the book, although it covers less than a page of narrative, is the revival of the town library as community center, school, and enduring resource.  The other is the plight of the town doctor, beaten and robbed by highwaymen, his glasses lost in the attack.  As someone who could not possibly function without glasses (had I been born in an earlier century I’m sure I would have been eaten by wolves before reaching puberty), I knew that the doctor’s loss of his glasses was greater than anything the robbers had stolen.

In spite of the events of The Day and the varied calamities that follow, the community survives, and when contact with the devastated outside world is re-established, no one leaves.  Life will never be the same, but that doesn’t mean it is over, not by a long shot.  If the World as We Know It ends today, tomorrow is just the beginning of the World as We Make It.

A great many of the science fiction novels of the 50s and 60s revolved around the nuclear holocaust and its aftermath, and I probably read most of them.  Two that remain on my keeper shelf are Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949), in which an epidemic wipes out most of the population, with the survivors eventually slipping into tribalism rather than rebuilding civilization, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1961), in which cloistered monks preserve the rather spotty remnants of civilization centuries after its destruction.  (Both of these classics also remain in print.)  One of these days, when I have a little time–well, that’s why it’s called a keeper shelf.

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