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January 30, 2008

Alas, Babylon


Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Science Fiction
Copyright 1959
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.

and

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.

22 comments:

  1. I read this book years ago. I want to say maybe even in high school. I still remember the book today and keep meaning to reread it. It was quite compelling. THE STAND is probably on my top 10 list of all time. I read it 3 or 4 times or maybe even more. I can recommend LUCIFER'S HAMMER. I read that one many years ago too and while I can't remember everything about it, I do remember that I really, really liked it.

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  2. Anonymous7:54 AM

    I, also read 'Alas Babylon' as a teen.I don't think I slept peacefully for years. I would like to see it required reading in the schools...all levels.
    AND, last night 'The Day After' was on cable. Another experience that shown in the schools.

    Thankx.

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  3. I remember the days of duck and cover. I was living in Lincoln where I attended Hawthorne Elementary School and Millard Lefler Jr. High. They even bussed us to the fallout shelters and explained how many people could live there and for how long. I didn't quite grasp the meaning of it all, but it did scare me.

    Great review, Les. You've convinced me I need to read this. I had heard the title, but didn't know anything else about the book.

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  4. Anonymous5:52 PM

    Great review, Les!

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  5. Excellent review, Les. You've brought to mind what I adore about reading blogs; everyone comes away with a little something different. The quote from Anderson's book is perfect. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!!

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  6. I just grabbed A Canticle for Leibowitz off of the free stuff cart in the English department the other day. I used to have a gross, smelly copy but ended up tossing it. Now I can't wait to read it! And I can't wait to read Alas, Babylon either!

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  7. And I've never heard of Lucifer's Hammer. GREAT title.

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  8. Post apocalyptic stories are my favorite subgenre of sci-fi too but I've never finished Alas Babylon -- to be fair, I've never gotten past page one, so that's not much of a chance -- I'll have to pick it up again.

    Did you like Dreamers of the Day?

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  9. Kay - I suspect it was quite an impressionable read for you if you read it when you were a teenager.

    Wow! I would love to re-read The Stand, but I"m not sure I could devote enough time to read it 3 or 4 times. My husband's read it several times and says it's just as good each and every time.

    Glad to hear Lucifer's Hammer is a winner. I don't have a copy of that yet, so I may hold of and read it for a challenge next year.

    Anonymous - It seems a lot of people read this when they were young. Maybe it's a good thing I waited until I was an adult. Probably would've scared the crap out of me!

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Booklogged - I drive by Lefler J.H. at least a couple of times a week. :)

    Glad you enjoyed the review. I think you'll really appreciate this book. I might be a bit dated, but not nearly as much (at least not the dialogue) as I Am Legend.

    Jen - Thanks!

    Nancy - Aw, thanks. It took a bit of work since I didn't sit down right away to write it.

    I love those quotes from Cooper's memoir. My favorite line of all is, "Hope is not a plan."

    Andi - I have a fairly old copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz and I'm very tempted to spring for the nice new edition. Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow and Children of God) has written the introduction. I could just sit down one day and read that, but there's nothing like a nice new trade paperback with a cool cover, ya know?

    Katya - I hope you give Alas, Babylon another chance. Did you just get distracted or did you find it difficult to get interested in it?

    I loved Dreamers of the Day. I've written my review and am waiting to hear back from the author about a question before I post it.

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  10. Now I'm going to have to read this. I loved on the beach and yes - I grew up in the 50's/60's when my mom was repairing our tool shed all the neighbors thought she was building a bomb shelter- true story...

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  11. While "Alas Babylon" scared me pretty good when I was a kid, as strange as it sounds, "Lucifer's Hammer" is the most fun post-apocalyptic book I have ever read. It is more a great adventure story then a warning, but there are still several scenes from the book that stick with me. It ptobably helps that I have read the darn thing 3 times over the years. I am not a huge fan of "Canticle", but it is considered a classic in science fiction. You also mentioned the "Dies the Fire" books, which I thought were also very good adventure stories.

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  12. I loved Alas, Babylon. I read it last summer. If you have the time, you should read Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

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  13. Pat - I think you'll enjoy the book, especially if you loved On the Beach. Funny story about your mom and the tool shed! :)

    Lee - Sounds like Lucifer's Hammer is going to be a fun read! I still plan to read Canticle in spite of your less than enthusiastic view. We don't always see eye-to-eye on the books we read, do we? ;) I think I'll save the Stirling books for another year. Thanks again for all the info about your reading experience with Alas, Babylon.

    Becky - Thanks for the recommendation for Life As We Knew It! It sounds like a great read to add to my YA list, especially in light of this! I'm sure we'll all be fine, right?

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  14. I read Canticle and Postman last year when I was going through a big dystopian/post-apocalyptic phase.

    http://dilettantedabbling.blogspot.com/2007/04/canticle-for-leibowitz.html AND http://dilettantedabbling.blogspot.com/2007/05/postman.html
    are the links.

    I have Alas, Babylon on my TBR list and now I have more to add!

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  15. Les -- I just got distracted. That happened to me with In Cold Blood too. And Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show. I'm planning on giving Alas Babylon another chance.

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  16. Camille - I'm really looking forward to reading more post-apocalyptic books. Wonder what that says about me??!!

    Hope you enjoy Alas, Babylon.

    Katya - I got a bit distracted while reading In Cold Blood, too. But it was a great book! I hope you can get interested in AB. The timing of a read is always so precarious!

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  17. If you like post-apocalyptic fiction you should check out Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. It is a short story book that was just published. I am a little over half way through and there are some really entertaining stories in there. Some are so-so, but I've found a few that I really, really like.

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  18. Carl - Thanks for the recommendation. I've read a few reviews for Wastelands and it sounds like a great book. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but this one sounds like a winner. I suspect my husband would enjoy it, too. Thanks!

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  19. Anonymous5:47 AM

    Swan responding to your comments:
    I was so excited to see you had read Alas, Babylon and were resurrecting the title to our reading group. I read this book when I was a young teenager in the sixties and it has lasted with me through my fifties. It was a socio-political awakening and helped create the activist I am today. I saw you mention The Canticle for Lebowitz, I hope you enjoy that one too. Les, you always delight me with the choices you bring to our group.

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  20. Swan - I'm not sure how I missed your comment here, but I was thrilled to receive it! So I'm assuming you've read A Canticle for Leibowitz? I'm really excited to pick that one up sometime this month. Alas, Babylon was so good. I recommended it to a customer yesterday at work and she was very much interested as she had just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which she loved).

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  21. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I recently read this novel as a book report book, and it was one of the best books I have read in my 13 year old life. I have to admit that although the details were not entirely believable in some instances, it was a wonderful novel that I would reccomend to anyone. However, I was wondering if there were any related novels that you would suggest? Thanks.

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  22. Anonymous - Glad to hear you enjoyed the book. If you like post-apocalyptic novels, read through the list on this post and in the comment section -- there are several listed that are very good.

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