A nuclear fantasy

Alas Babylon book cover

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank was one of the landmark novels about nuclear conflict in the late 1950s, along with On the Beach and A Canticle for Leibowitz. These helped to raise awareness and fear of nuclear warfare among the general public. I read the others long ago, and both had a profound effect on me.

Frank’s novel charts how the residents of a small town cope with an all-out nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that leaves the civilization around them crippled. It follows the aimless Randy Braggs as he finds meaning in his life by coming to lead a small group working to maintain a civil society.

The book reads much like an action novel, moving quickly through crises, with characters that possess just the right tools at the right time to ensure survival. As much as the book aims to scare, it’s largely a fantasy. Given the number, size, and proximity of thermonuclear explosions described, it seems unlikely that everyone would be essentially unaffected by the levels of radiation in the area. The doctor gives some nonsensical explanation at one point about organisms adapting to radiation, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of biology and evolution.

Taken as a yarn, though, this is an entertaining read, and it certainly has its place in literary history. A word of warning to the modern reader: there are decidedly outdated notions of race and gender. Some of Randy’s thoughts about “Negroes” are patronizing, although clearly meant to be progressive and generous as everyone heroically bands together to survive. And his thoughts about women made me cringe, they were so 50s macho ridiculous. My favorite: “The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that he had learned this: they needed a man around.” Okey dokey. If you can get past such things, it’s not a bad read, although not a great work of literature.