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Book review: “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank

Published in 1959, Alas, Babylon was among the first wave of novels to speculate about how the world, and the United States in particular, would look in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

It was not a pretty picture.

Actually, for Randy Bragg and his circle of friends in central Florida, life isn’t so bad — at least, in comparison to how it is in the places that took direct H-bomb hits and in the places where the weather isn’t as temperate.

They have fresh well water, abundant fish, corn crops, a doctor, a variety of useful skills, a short-wave radio, a location uncontaminated (pretty much) by the nukes and their fallout, a willingness to work together and a leader (Randy).

Still….

Grim and grimmer

Life after what’s called The Day is lived without electricity, except that which can be supplied by batteries that, pretty soon, die, and without rapidly diminishing supplies of gasoline, liquor, medicine, and with the rise of highwaymen and epidemics and radiation poisoning, and without any official forces of law and order.

Alas, Babylon depicts a best-case scenario, circa 60 years ago.  It’s grim.

Much grimmer, though, today. 

Over the past six decades, nuclear opponents built up their stocks to such an extent that the operative policy on both sides of the divide was called mutually assured destruction.

Mutual

In other words, so many warheads would hit so many places in the opponent nation — so many more than Pat Frank envisioned in Alas, Babylon — that even the side that fired first would be, essentially, wiped off the face of the earth.  It was sure, and it was total destruction.

Somehow, this policy, ramped down only slightly since the fall of the Soviet Union, has worked although…God help us.

Even in 1959, a nuclear war would have made much of the United States unlivable and left much of the survivors facing a most primitive existence. Today, such a conflict would leave nowhere untouched, if not by direct destruction than by fallout and climate disruption.

A certain freedom

Frank wrote Alas, Babylon as a warning of what a nuclear war policy could lead to, but, even then, most of the United States population — essentially anyone living in or near great American cities — would have died immediately.  It would be much worse today.

Books like this have led some readers to become survivalists, stocking up on ammunition, canned goods, generators, etc.  This, I guess, is a legitimate strategy for someone living very far off the beaten path.

For me, and for the hundreds of millions of other American city- and suburban-dwellers, this isn’t worth considering.  I know as someone who loves cities and lives in one of the largest that, if the bombs come, I’m gone.

There’s a certain odd freedom in that. 

Patrick T. Reardon

6.3.19

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