OPINION – I have to hand it to author Pat Frank. Long before survival fiction had come into its own, he penned what I consider one of the best apocalyptic novels around.
“Alas, Babylon” was first published in 1959 as the Cold War was intensifying globally. It explores the unthinkable aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviets.
What makes Frank’s book worthwhile reading in our day is his exploration of the likely challenges and leadership decisions that would be faced by the survivors. By telling the story from the viewpoint of average people in a small community in Florida, Franks offers some very sound insights that have real world application.
It doesn’t matter if we were to unexpectedly face a man-made or natural disaster, the human dynamics that come into play are vividly described and wrestled with in “Alas, Babylon.” Though it may be a work of fiction, there are valuable lessons to be gleaned
For this reason, I encourage anyone who values personal preparedness to consider reading the novel.
The story begins with Randy Bragg receiving a telegram from his brother Mark who is in the Strategic Air Command. The brief message asks for a meeting at a nearby Air Force base that day and ends with the words, “Alas, Babylon.”
This phrase is a family code that the brothers came up with many years earlier after hearing a fiery local preacher call his flock to repentance. To Bragg, it is a signal that something is very seriously wrong.
Upon meeting with his brother, Bragg learns that tensions between the Russians and the U.S. are extraordinarily high and Mark’s wife and children will be coming to stay with him until the situation cools down.
Mark is concerned that Omaha, where he is stationed, will be a primary target if an actual nuclear exchange occurs. He hands his brother a check and encourages him to purchase all the things they’ll need to be self-sufficient and promises to come get them as soon as the crisis is over.
Bragg agrees and immediately heads to the supermarket to stock up on the items that will be most useful in a long term emergency. He also wisely visits the hardware store and a gas station to pick up a few things that will be in great demand.
Much sooner than expected, the nukes begin going off and Randy is caught only half as prepared as he’d hoped to be. This is one of the most instructive parts of the book.
When the power goes off for an extended period and a community finds itself cut off from the world around it, survival becomes a matter of being able to adapt to the situation. From a physical preparedness standpoint, the citizens of Bragg’s community are better off than most.
But there is an aspect of mental preparation that is equally important.
This is illustrated through the experience of a local banker who would rather kill himself than live in a world where banks are no longer functional and money has become essentially worthless.
One of the most powerful lessons from the book comes when leadership is needed at the local level. Despite surviving the nukes and subsequent fallout, Bragg has to lead out in order to handle various crises including dealing with a proliferation of highwaymen on the area roadways, protecting against disease due to contamination of the drinking water, and keeping his community fed.
Pat Frank does a terrific job of developing the characters of “Alas, Babylon” in such a way that none of them seem too good to be true. They all have unique flaws and strengths and must learn to cooperate in spite of their differences. Their efforts are met with a realistic ratio of failure and success.
The key to their successes, however, is found in their willingness to continue moving forward with faith, perseverance, and optimism in order to solve their problems. There is no single magical solution that sets everything right as the story ends.
In fact, Frank ends the story on a very wide open note:
The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand year night.
There is very little gun-play in this book and no gratuitous violence or sexuality. “Alas, Babylon” is the kind of book that could be read as a family and used to spark discussions about what we might do in similar circumstances.
It was not written to scare people to death or leave them with a sense of hopelessness. Our current apocalyptic daily news headlines seem to be covering these bases quite nicely.
But unlike this story, they seldom give us information that is truly useful.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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