June 2015

Frank, Pat [Harry Hart Frank]. Alas, Babylon. New York: Harper Perennial, [1959] 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-074187-7.
This novel, originally published in 1959, was one the first realistic fictional depictions of an all-out nuclear war and its aftermath. While there are some well-crafted thriller scenes about the origins and catastrophic events of a one day spasm war between the Soviet Union and the United States (the precise origins of which are not described in detail; the reader is led to conclude that it was an accident waiting to happen, much like the outbreak of World War I), the story is mostly set in Fort Repose, a small community on a river in the middle of Florida, in an epoch when Florida was still, despite some arrivals from the frozen north, very much part of the deep south.

Randy Bragg lives in the house built by his ancestors on River Road, with neighbours including long-time Floridians and recent arrivals. some of which were scandalised to discover one of their neighbours, the Henry family, were descended from slaves to whom Randy's grandfather had sold their land long before the first great Florida boom, when land was valued only by the citrus it could grow. Randy, nominally a lawyer, mostly lived on proceeds from his orchards, a trust established by his father, and occasional legal work, and was single, largely idle, and seemingly without direction. Then came The Day.

From the first detonations of Soviet bombs above cities and military bases around Fort Repose, the news from outside dwindled to brief bulletins from Civil Defense and what one of Randy's neighbours could glean from a short wave radio. As electrical power failed and batteries were exhausted, little was known of the fate of the nation and the world. At least, after The Day, there were no more visible nuclear detonations.

Suddenly Fort Repose found itself effectively in the 19th century. Gasoline supplies were limited to what people had in the tanks of their cars, and had to be husbanded for only the most essential purposes. Knowledge of how to hunt, trap, fish, and raise crops, chickens, and pigs became much more important than the fancy specialties of retirees in the area. Fortunately, by the luck of geography and weather, Fort Repose was spared serious fallout from the attack, and the very fact that the large cities surrounding it were directly targeted (and that it was not on a main highway) meant it would be spared invasion by the “golden horde” of starving urban and suburban refugees which figure in many post-apocalyptic stories. Still, cut off from the outside, “what you have is all you've got”, and people must face the reality that medical supplies, their only doctor, food the orchards cannot supply, and even commodities as fundamental as salt are limited. But people, especially rural people in the middle of the 20th century, are resourceful, and before long a barter market springs up in which honey, coffee, and whiskey prove much more valuable than gold or silver.

Wherever there are things of value and those who covet them, predators of the two footed variety will be manifest. While there is no mass invasion, highwaymen and thieves appear to prey upon those trying to eke out a living for their families. Randy Bragg, now responsible for three families living under his own roof and neighbours provided by his artesian water well, is forced to grow into a protector of these people and the community, eventually defending them from those who would destroy everything they have managed to salvage from the calamity.

They learn that all of Florida has been designated as one of the Contaminated Zones, and hence that no aid can be anticipated from what remains of the U.S. government. Eventually a cargo plane flies over and drops leaflets informing residents that at some time in the future aid may be forthcoming, “It was proof that the government of the United States still functioned. It was also useful as toilet paper. Next day, ten leaflets would buy an egg, and fifty a chicken. It was paper, and it was money.”

This is a tale of the old, weird, stiff-spined, rural America which could ultimately ride out what Herman Kahn called the “destruction of the A country” and keep on going. We hear little of the fate of those in the North, where with The Day occurring near mid-winter, the outcome for those who escaped the immediate attack would have been much more calamitous. Ultimately it is the resourcefulness, fundamental goodness, and growth of these people under extreme adversity which makes this tale of catastrophe ultimately one of hope.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition and processing it through an optical character recognition program. The result of this seems to have been run through a spelling checker, but not subjected to detailed copy editing. As a result, there are numerous scanning errors, some obvious, some humorous, and some real head scratchers. This classic work, from a major publisher, deserves better.