I decided this winter, while I am on break from school, that I should read at least one classic in addition to all the just-for-fun books I plan on reading. My first choice for this was Orwell’s 1984, but as my library did not have any copies in at the time I had to settle for something else. I had heard of Alas, Babylon, although I knew nothing specific about it aside from what I read on the back cover, but it looked interesting enough. I did not realize until after I had chosen it that it was written in 1959, and thus not as old as I was expecting. Nevertheless, I dove in.
Alas, Babylon follows the day-to-day lives of several members of a small town in Florida, called Fort Repose, when the Cold War suddenly becomes very hot. Randy Bragg, the central protagonist, receives about a day’s warning of the attack and scrambles to pull together supplies and protection for his friends and family. Helen Bragg, wife of Randy’s brother, and her children come to live with Randy in that one day before the world is drastically changed. Nuclear attacks narrowly avoid Fort Repose, leaving it an island of civilization with little to no news of how the rest of the nation or world fared. After the attack Randy’s neighborhood pulls together and manages to find new ways to survive in the drastically strange new world, and maintain their humanity.
Published in 1959, Alas, Babylon allows a look back into the relatively recent past and, at the same time, a look forward at what was and continues to be a very real possible future. As far as post-apocalyptic novels go, Alas, Babylon is one of the most optimistic I have read. It is also one of the most enjoyable. Without drawing out technical explanations of how things work and why they would not continue to work following a nuclear attack, Frank provides enough information for the reader to understand and then moves on. This book sparked quite a few enjoyable conversations with my father over historical aspects which did not make sense or I did not know about, but even without these external explanations I do not think I would have missed out on much. The characters are likeable and relatable, despite being set in an earlier time and in situations I have no chance of ever truly understanding. As they fight to survive and keep some semblance of normalcy, the characters draw you into their lives so that you want to know what happened next. At the end of the book, I have an appropriately slight sadness that I will not know how long each of the characters survives, what the next generation faces, or how the children grow up. These are things that I would like to know, but have been effectively hinted at in the ending of the book. There are no definite answers, but in a post-apocalyptic world almost nothing is certain. However, I do have to say that I am happy Frank did not try to diminish the humanity of the characters as their lifestyles changed and ‘normal’ became an increasingly distant memory. Unlike many other post-nuclear situation stories, this book maintains proper grammar. It seems that many authors seem to think that language would be one of the first things to go in such a situation; Frank even saves the library and a few teachers in Fort Repose, so that humanity is not lost with the electricity or water.
Alas, Babylon is an enjoyable story about holding on to hope and faith despite terrible situations. It also contains a strict warning for the Cold War generation, and I am sure that any self-described Doomsday Prepper would find fuel in its tale for their choices. It is one of those books that quietly shapes how I look at the world, and I am sure it will linger in my mind for a long time, although it has not drastically altered how I view anything or challenged my beliefs. I am very happy that I read this modern classic, and rate it 4.5 out of 5 stars.