Book Review: Alas, Babylon by Frank (4 stars)

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

4 out of 5 stars

Read in March 2009

It’s 1959. It’s the height of the Cold War. The threat of thermonuclear war hangs in the air like an impending thunderstorm.

Randy Bragg is a lawyer living in the backwaters of Florida in the small town of Fort Repose. He’s the younger brother of an Air Force Colonel, Mark Bragg, stationed at Offutt AFB in Omaha – the renowned home of SAC HQ. Mark sends Randy a cryptic telegram telling him his wife and kids were coming to visit and ends with the phrase “Alas, Babylon.” This is a code word they discussed a few months earlier that meant a nuclear strike against the US was imminent.

Randy attempts to stock up for the aftermath, but really doesn’t have a grasp of what will be left after the attack. It’s not like a hurricane where your power and water might be interrupted for a few days or a few weeks. The entire infrastructure of modern life was shattered and disrupted beyond recovery in most large cities. Medical supplies, food, communications, transportation – everything was thrown back one hundred or even two hundred years in a matter of days.

The author did an excellent job of showing how one small town, uniquely spared the nuclear holocaust, managed to not only survive but retain some civilization and hope for the future.

I noticed a couple of obvious missing resources. The author mentions in passing amateur radio operators when he is describing retired Admiral Hazzard’s sideband radio. However, in 1959, it would have been difficult to toss a rock without hitting an amateur radio operator, and we (I am a licensed amateur radio operator) are usually involved in Civil Defense. We are the first line of communication when all other forms fail.

Also, Fort Repose was not far from Cape Canaveral (where NASA is now) and I would have thought there would be more military or engineers (retired or otherwise) living in Fort Repose.

I find it difficult to believe that even a small town would only have one bicycle – the one that belonged to the Western Union office used by the messenger boy. Every child would have had one and I’m sure some of the adults as well. Drive three or five miles on a bicycle in flat Florida wouldn’t have been too arduous.

In hindsight, we now know more concerning the other hazards of nuclear attacks; things like nuclear winter and electromagnetic pulses. Still, I am very impressed, even fifty years later, with Pat Frank’s chilling tale of survival and hope.