Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Growing up during the Cold War, I remember overhearing my parents discussing whether we should dig a bomb shelter in our back yard. I also remember reading Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas Babylon for the first time as a teenager and feeling that the threat of nuclear destruction it dramatized was frightening and real.

Of course, the threat is still real. Whether from natural disaster, nuclear war, or the meltdown of nuclear reactors, the total destruction of civilization is a frightening thing to contemplate.

In Frank’s novel, the citizens of Fort Repose, a sleepy town in central Florida, are faced with that reality. Far enough away from major cities to avoid a direct hit and fortunately not in the path of wind-blown fallout, they suffer little immediate damage. However, there is no longer any electricity, refrigeration, gasoline, or imported goods and no prospect of their availability. The bank manager is bewildered and refuses to cash government bonds until he finds out if there is a government. Phone calls and telegrams cannot be sent to cities that no longer exist.

There is general panic, but a few citizens keep their heads. Randy Bragg, the owner of a large citrus plantation, and Dan Gunn, the town’s doctor, become the leaders of a small group of families who struggle to survive, help their neighbors, and keep order as lawlessness and desperation increase around them.

To me, the most interesting parts of the story are about how people use their imagination and ingenuity to survive and even thrive in situations where others give up. Randy’s young niece, Peyton, talks to the elderly fishermen in the region about how to catch fish even when they are not “biting.” Doctor Gunn learns hypnosis to put people into a deep trance for surgery. Randy remembers having read about an old salt mine and combs historical records until he discovers its location, enabling them to replenish their stores of this vital nutrient.

Most satisfying to me, the town librarian finds herself becoming one of the town’s most important people as citizens flock to the books to learn about everything from edible wild foods to making repairs. It is also satisfying to see racial barriers breaking down as people come to be valued first and foremost for their skill, energy, and dedication.

The story reaches its climax when Randy, as a reserve officer, declares martial law. He and a select band lay a trap for the area’s highwaymen and defeat them, though not without casualties.

Years later, Randy and his community are “discovered” by a military helicopter which has been sent by the skeletal U. S. government to search the contaminated zones for survivors. The crew offers to fly them out, if they want to go. At long last, they get news of the war—who won, who lost—as if it mattered. Randy, Dan, and their neighbors have different ideas about what matters now, in the aftermath of what is known to posterity as “The Day.”

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