My consumption of sci-fi and fantasy dwindled a bit in 2022. Part of this stems from the ongoing feeling that many of the books hitting the shelves are part of some of a series. I’m either a book or two behind or because George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss burned me not delivering new installments after I got invested in a series and I’m scared to dip my toes into something new for fear of further abandonment.
For years, my real-world book club started off the year by dipping our toes into the past and reading an older science-fiction novel. This tied well into #VintageSciFiMonth when it started up a few years ago.
And while my real-world book club has gone dormant, as 2023 dawned, I found myself wanting to make a more concerted effort to sci-fi and fantasy and to check a few books off my to-be-read pile.
Enter Alas, Babylon, a novel that I picked up a few years ago for the #VintageSciFiMonth but never quite got around to reading. It’s been a while since I read a post-apocalyptic story and I felt like it was time for the “end of the world as we know it” to happen in the fictional world.
Published in 1959, Alas, Babylon recounts the days leading up to a nuclear war between the United States and the days, months, and years following said attack. Pat Frank spends the first quarter of the novel introducing us to Randy Bragg and the people in his Florida small-town world. Randy lives an aimless life in the small town until he receives a telegram from his brother with their secret code of “Alas, Babylon” which signifies a massive shift coming in the world. In this case, it’s the Soviet Union seizing an opportunity to strike the United States with tactical nuclear weapons.
The first quarter of the novel at times feels like a thriller by Tom Clancy, with tensions escalating due to moves made by each side until an accidental bombing of an ammunition depot in the Middle East by an American jet pilot sets off a chain reaction that leads to nuclear war.
Randy’s town is far enough from major population centers and military installations to not be bombed out of existence. However, it does face major changes in the world on The Day when the bombs fall and afterward.
At times, Alas, Babylon is chillingly effective, especially the chapter the details how the day the bombs fall becomes The Day and spends twenty-four hours detailing what happen — from the initial shockwaves to the run on supplies to the power finally and permanently failing. Hauntingly told, the chapter alone is one reason that this novel has survived and remained part of the literary consciousness all the years.
Frank also creates a haunting portrait of the world post-bombing and the impact is has on his characters. It’s probably strange that I’m reading the new Jack Reacher book as I finish this one because I feel like Randy and Jack are cut from the same literary cloth — the man who always has the answers and is rarely phased by much. Give Randy a travel toothbrush and he probably is a bit more like Reacher. Seeing how differently things are valued in the pre-and post-attack world is one of the more intriguing aspects of the story. It certainly made me wonder how long I might survive in the new world order described.
The parts that don’t work as well now are the blatant racism and sexism that exist. If you’re looking for a book with strong characters of color and strong females, you’re probably going to want to skip this one. (Though it is interesting that once the news starts filtering in about the world beyond the scope of Randy’s small town that the balance of power has shifted to Asia).
The other big drawback of the story is the ending feels a bit anti-climatic. Early on, Randy’s brother, Mark, sends his family to live with Randy to get them out of harm’s way. Mark is a high-ranking military official, so he’s near one of the areas that would be one of the first targets in the attacks. I kept getting a feeling that Mark would somehow magically survive the first wave of attacks and enter the story again in the later stages. Thankfully, Frank doesn’t allow this to happen though there is some drama centering on his wife coming on to Randy and later becoming romantically entangled with the town’s doctor.
All of this leads up to an ending that feels like it’s trying too hard to give us a bit of hope when the past hundred or so pages don’t really support it. Seeing the world struggle to put itself back together is compelling but the last chapter undermines it a bit. I wonder if Frank struggled to find a way to end the story and couldn’t quite find a way that satisfied him to stick the landing.
Stil, I can see why this one is among the more cited stories of the post-apocalyptic genre. When the novel is working, it’s firing on all cylinders. There are just a couple of speed bumps in there.