Wednesday, April 08, 2009

SHTF Review: Alas Babylon

In high school, I think sophomore year, I was in American Lit or some similar named course. We were given a reading list of 7 or 8 books which during the year we would read and discuss (and write papers!) about in class.

During those wonderful, non-PC, heady days of the 1970's and 1980's, reading lists would invariably include "Alas Babylon" and/or "On the Beach", both post-nuclear war fiction accounts.

I don't know what encouraged the reading expert to high schools in that era to add those titles to the required reading list, but I appreciated it. I was always a fan of science fiction and gravitated towards end of the world stories in particular. I would gaze over the paperbacks in B Dalton or Walden Books at the mall and search for covers with nuclear bombs or pictures of a ruined city or something.

I had never heard of Pat Frank's "Alas Babylon" before I was handed my reading list in high school and probably because the cover of that book often featured a) no picture or b) a group of mismatched people staring at what looked like a sun on the horizon. Nope, I probably thought it was some "literature book" like "East of Eden" or "Grapes of Wrath" and promptly ignored it at the time.

"Alas Babylon" takes place in late 1950's Florida and follows one Randy Bragg, a playboy middle aged attorney minding the aging family home and orange groves and keeping the local bourbon and scotch trade going briskly. Bragg's big brother, the responsible one, is an officer at Offut Air Force Base in Omaha and sends Randy a cryptic telegram - Alas Babylon. Turns out this is their code word for "The big one is about to happen".

Fortunately, along with the telegram comes a check for five grand for "preps" and after a humorous run in with the local banker cashing the check, Randy starts stocking up. The problem is three fold.

First, Randy lives in Fort Repose, a town of only about ten thousand and with it the limited resources available such as only one grocery store, gas station and (yikes!) liquor store. Randy's ten full grocery carts attract some attention.

Second, Randy only has about twenty four hours to get ready. Part of which he devotes to a nap!

Third, with the check and the warning comes big brother's wife and two kids who need to be collected at the airport in Orlando before the bombs go off.

Top things off with Randy forgetting some important things like laundry detergent but remembering some decent 1950's trade goods later like lots of coffee and booze.

Family arrives, bombs go off and chaos ensues. Randy is transformed from mildly alcoholic recluse to head of household, militia leader and the face of law and order in Central Florida. He collects a motley crew at his rambling home including a humane doctor, a crusty old admiral, jack of all trades Air Force sergeant, a successful retired business man and his lovely daughter.

Besides having to figure out where water comes from, food production, the value of salt and how to perform surgery with steak knives and fishing line, Randy takes on highway men, edgy neighbors, lonely housewives, radioactive jewelry and a dangerous black marketer lady with eyes for him.

"Alas Babylon" was penned during a crucial time for atomic America. The Russians had launched Sputnik and were going toe to toe with the U.S. in the development of ballistic submarines and transcontinental bombers. Most of the actual war described in the book takes place over months, not hours as it would happen today. There were no satellite communications in this time, so radio and TV were line of site and once gone, leave the residents of Fort Repose in the dark information wise.

However, the characters in "Alas Babylon" still had useful skills reflective of the time period, such as Malachi and his family next door who raise their own crops, livestock, make moonshine and keep the Model T running. Also, seems everyone knows how to can, hunt, fish and keep a household running without a microwave, refrigerator or working air conditioner.

"Alas Babylon" has one thing over much other survival fiction these days; its a good story. The characters are real, the events range from frightening to hum drum. Maybe it was the way people conducted themselves in the 1950's, but there is no need for long blab fests or group meetings symptomatic in survival stories online. Responsibility is thrust upon individuals and they accept it with stoic silence and resolve. The characters are modeled after the same people who fought and won World War II; life is tough and getting tougher.

"Alas Babylon" is a great story and belongs on everyone's survival bookshelf. I have seen a copy available for reading online for free, but Alas, Babylon is available in paperback still. Hopefully, for the high school reader, though I doubt it. It might be too relevant.

Good luck,


Bitmap said...

"Alas, Babylon" is a good one.

I found my copy in a used book store.

John said...


Its available online too. I found it by accident a couple of years back. But with any great title, I prefer to buy the book and support the author when possible.

Thanks for reading and commenting,

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