January 30, 2008
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Finished on 1/14/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Sci-Fi Experience 2008 #2
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
~ Albert Einstein
The lights went out in the room, the radio died, and at the same time the world outside was illuminated, as at midday. At that instant Randy faced the window and he would always retain, like a color photograph printed on his brain, what he saw -- a red fox frozen against the Admiral's green lawn. It was the first fox he had seen in years.
The white flashed back into a red ball in the southeast. They all knew what it was. It was Orlando, or McCoy Base or both. It was the power supply for Timucuan County.
Thus the lights went out, and in that moment civilization in Fort Repose retreated a hundred years.
So ended The Day.
I don't usually read a lot of science fiction, but if pressed I'd have to say that post-apocalyptic stories constitute my favorite SF subgenre. While I didn't care too much for I Am Legend or Earth Abides (and really only came to appreciate The Road several days after finishing it), I loved Swan Song and The Stand. Published in 1959, and thus a progenitor of those two favorites, Alas, Babylon is "the classic apocalyptic novel that stunned the world." While it doesn't have any of the supernatural aspects that McCammon and King's books are famous for, it's quite a spellbinding read. It's been over two weeks since I finished and I find I'm still thinking about the plot and characters.
I have a friend who read this in 1972 when he was around eleven-years-old. His father was in the Air Force and they were stationed at Eglin AFB in Ft Walton Beach, Florida at the time. In a recent email he said, "...[Alas, Babylon] scared the crap out of me, it may have been the first time that I realized that if there ever was a nuclear war, I would be one of the first to go. But to tell you the truth that is probably one of the 5 most influential books that I ever read. It was the book that instilled a love in me for stories about people who overcome great odds - both in fiction and nonfiction." I, on the other hand, wasn't the least bit scared by the narrative. Maybe I would've had a different reaction had I read it back in the Sixties or Seventies (when I was at an impressionable age like my friend). It was a contemporary work of its time, contemplative of the bellicose posturing of nations and of the potential results of that sort of sabre-rattling. However, I was not quite a year old during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the Bay of Pigs occurred prior to my birth), so I didn't grow up with the same fears of a nuclear holocaust that my husband vividly remembers. I wasn't taught to "duck and cover," nor do I remember any advertisements for fallout shelters. So while I could appreciate the significant fear and possibility of a nuclear war, I wasn't terrified by the author's writing; although seemingly realistic, it lacked any personal resonance. If anything, it just made me more aware of how interdependent we are as a society: on technology, on our various forms of communication, and on each other. We may not have the same worries as those of the Cold War era, but we are certainly not immune to a national disaster, as we saw with 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Electricity, water, food, shelter, medical and protective services, and communication agencies are all vital to our daily lives. As Anderson Cooper states in his recent memoir, Dispatches From the Edge:
I used to get back from Somalia or Sarajevo and imagine what New York would look like in a war. Which buildings would crumble? Who among my friends would survive? I always told myself if it did happen here, at least we could handle it better. At least our government would know what to do.
…Katrina showed us all that’s not true.
This is the only chance we get for a test run if something even more horrible happens or something as horrible happens with a nuclear device in this country. And we botched this one. We won’t get a chance to botch it again.
Some twenty thousand people took refuge in the Superdome, told to come by the city’s mayor, who called it a shelter of last resort. He’d hoped that help would arrive from the state or federal government within two days. It didn’t. Hope is not a plan. [Emphasis mine]
I enjoyed Alas, Babylon so much that I decided to treat myself to a nice new trade paperback copy (with a foreword by David Brin), eager to toss the mass market copy (with the cheesy '80s cover art) I'd snagged at a library sale a few years ago.
I don't remember where I first heard about this book, but I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, thanks to Carl's Sci-Fi Experience. Now I'm even more anxious to read A Canticle For Lebowitz, On the Beach, Dies the Fire, Lucifer's Hammer, and (despite Kevin Costner's mediocre movie) Brin's The Postman.
Be sure to check out Bookfool's fabulous review. She goes into much more detail about the book (and the stereotypes of that era) than I have. Such is the danger of writing a review two weeks after finishing the book! And check out Wikipedia's blurb for more information about Alas, Babylon.