Saturday, February 18, 2012

Alas, Babylon

Alas, Babylon. Pat Frank. 1959/1999. HarperCollins. 325 pages.

In Fort Repose, a river town in Central Florida, it was said that sending a message by Western Union was the same as broadcasting it over the combined networks. This was not entirely true. It was true that Florence Wechek, the manager, gossiped. Yet she judiciously classified the personal intelligence that flowed under her plump fingers, and maintained a prudent censorship over her tongue. The scandalous and the embarrassing she excised from her conversation. Sprightly, trivial, and harmless items she passed on to friends, thus enhancing her status and relieving the tedium of spinsterhood. If your sister was in trouble, and wired for money, the secret was safe with Florence Wechek. But if your sister bore a legitimate baby, its sex and weight would soon be known all over town.

Alas, Babylon was an apocalyptic novel written in 1959 during the Cold War. It imagines the ultimate what-if of the time. What if the USSR used nuclear warfare and took out all our bases and major cities?

Mark Bragg is in the know. He's received just enough warning to send his wife, Helen, his son, Ben Franklin, and his daughter, Peyton, to his brother, Randy, in Fort Repose, Florida. Of course, he doesn't know for sure that Fort Repose will be safe enough, but it has to be safer than Omaha. He knows his own fate all too well. His will be among the first hit--or targeted. This isn't Mark's story. And readers only catch a glimpse of his story through his brief conversation with Randy--and through what Randy chooses to reveal about him. 

Randy Bragg is the hero of Alas, Babylon. He is our narrator. He receives a telegram from his brother that reads "Alas, Babylon" and he knows it's just a matter of time. Will it be today? Will it be tomorrow? How soon is 'the end'? He learns that his brother is sending his family to him, that he is to protect them to the best of his ability. But how do you really, truly prepare for something like this? How can you know exactly what you'll need? He does go to the store, he does go shopping, he does try, but he's just not able to comprehend what the loss of most (if not all) major cities in Florida will mean.  (The loss of electricity, no gasoline deliveries, no food deliveries, no mail, no radio, no television, no newspapers, no way to learn what is happening on any street but you're own). And of course, it's not just Florida. Other states, other cities, will be effected as well.

For an apocalyptic novel, Alas, Babylon is rich in hope. I'm not saying that it's not a serious novel with a serious subject. I'm not saying that it's not bleak either. Bad things do happen. And life does change...seemingly forever. There are no easy answers on what to do next. I'm reminded of a scene from Babylon 5, season two, "Confessions and Lamentations" in which Delenn and Lennier learn that "faith manages." But there is much to admire in Randy Bragg and the other men and women we meet in Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. Like their courage, their resourcefulness, their determination, etc.

While part of the novel is spent on politics--the right and wrongs of it--and war--the right and wrongs of it--much of the novel is focused on surviving, on moving forward. Part of the novel also has to do with race relations as well. Randy was not elected before "the day" because he was too open-minded and not quite Southern enough. In other words, he was not a racist. In other words, he didn't think integration was the work of the devil. (Half of the characters in Alas, Babylon are black. And I don't think it's unfair to conclude that without the help of his black neighbors, Randy Bragg wouldn't have managed as well).

There were many, many memorable scenes in Alas, Babylon. My personal favorite may just be this commentary from librarian.
Alone of all the people in Fort Repose, Alice continued with her regular work. Every morning she left the Wechek house at seven. Often, ignoring the unpredictable dangers of the road, she did not return until dark. Since The Day, the demand for her services had multiplied. They slowed when they overtook her, shouted a greeting, and waved. She waved back and pedaled on, a small, brave, and busy figure. Watching the car chuff past,  Alice reminded herself that this evening she must bring back new books for Ben Franklin and Peyton. It was a surprise, and a delight, to see children devour books. Without ever knowing it, they were receiving an education. Alice would never admit it aloud, but for the first time in her thirty years as librarian of Fort Repose she felt fulfilled, even important.
It had not been easy or remunerative to persist as librarian in Fort Repose. She recalled how every year for eight years the town council had turned down her annual request for air conditioning. An expensive frill, they'd said. But without air conditioning, how could a library compete? Drugstores, bars, restaurants, movies, the St. Johns Country Club in San Marco, the lobby of the Riverside Inn, theaters, and most homes were air conditioned. You couldn't expect people to sit in a hot library during the humid Florida summer, which began in April and didn't end until October, when they could be sitting in an air-conditioned living room coolly and painlessly absorbing visual pablum on television. Alice had installed a Coke machine and begged old electric fans but it had been a losing battle.
In thirty years her book budget had been raised ten percent but the cost of books had doubled. Her magazine budget was unchanged, but the cost of magazines had tripled. So while Fort Repose grew in population, book borrowings dwindled. There had been so many new distractions, drive-in theaters, dashing off to springs and beaches over the weekends, the mass hypnosis of the young every evening, and finally the craze for boating and water-skiing. Now all this was ended. All entertainment, all amusements, all escape, all information again centered in the library. The fact that the library had no air conditioning made no difference now. There were not enough chairs to accommodate her readers. They sat on the front steps, in the windows, on the floor with backs against walls or stacks. They read everything, even the classics. And the children came to her, when they were free of their chores, and she guided them. And there was useful research to do. Randy and Doctor Gunn didn't know it, but as a result of her research they might eat better thereafter. It was strange, she thought, pedaling steadily, that it should require a holocaust to make her own life worth living. (187-188)

Read Alas, Babylon
  • If you're a fan of apocalyptic fiction
  • If you're a fan of science fiction and are looking for a classic 
  • If you're a fan of survival stories
  • If you're a fan of compelling thrillers
  • If you want to know the fate of armadillos in Florida
© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Seth said...

I read this one a few years ago on my wife's recommendation. Loved it! Thanks for the great review!

Beckie B. said...

Thanks for the review. This has been on my shelf a long time. I will have to get it out.

Amy said...

Oh my goodness, I read this in high school and haven't thought about it since. The racial angle went over my head then; but it points to the staying power of the book.

CharmedLassie said...

I think I have to read this just because of your last bullet point! (And it sounds like a very good book)