Book Review: Alas, Babylon

“Alas, Babylon.” Those momentous words heralded the end.

When a nuclear holocaust wreaks devastation on the U.S., a thousand years of civilization are stripped away in a day, and millions upon millions of people are slaughtered instantly. But for Randy Bragg and others in a small Florida town miraculously spared, the struggle is just beginning, as men and women of all types band together to confront this new world.

Originally written in 1959, Pat Frank’s classic novel is one of the few in its genre to actually take the nuclear-apocalypse scenario seriously. At one level, it is highly specific to the time at which it was written (i.e. the early years of the Cold War), and yet it’s age does nothing to detract from its potency and charm.

Contrary to what one might assume, Alas, Babylon is not merely another piece of shameless fear-mongering or anti-war propaganda. Although Frank presents us with a chilling scenario, he doesn’t stop there – the story he tells is one of hope, courage, and perseverance. His characters do not wallow in self-pity, bemoaning their dire situation: they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start afresh. Armed with thoughtfulness and prudence and a never-say-die attitude, they learn to cope. A reviewer for The New Yorker summed it up quite well by calling Alas, Babylon “an extraordinary real picture of human beings numbed by catastrophe but still driven by the unconquerable determination of living creatures to keep on being alive.”

The characters of this story are exceptionally well-conceived and easily relatable: they are neither brilliant scientists nor super-soldiers; they’re only human beings, doggedly trying to survive from day to day. Sometimes they mess up, sometimes they get hurt, even killed. They are ordinary people facing extraordinary odds.

Though spared a direct hit, these characters – the citizens of Fort Repose, FL – must still deal with the consequences of nearby blasts. There is no more running water or electricity. Fuel is scarce and soon disappears entirely, making automobiles virtually useless. Much of the available food is contaminated, and all water must be boiled before it is drunk. Disease strikes with a heavy hand due to the lack of necessary medicines. Weapons and ammunition are hoarded as precious commodities. Radiation poisoning is a constant threat. The suicide rate climbs dramatically, and in the absence of any unified law force, roving bands of marauders kill and steal with reckless enthusiasm.

It’s a dark world, certainly, but not without hope. Randy Bragg and his neighbors demonstrate great courage and resourcefulness as they learn to improvise, substituting what they have for things we typically take for granted in our everyday lives.

Alas, Babylon is not perfect, and Frank is certainly not writing from a Christian point of view. Nevertheless, it is an excellent and worthwhile piece of survivalist fiction. It comes highly recommended by me, with the caveat that it is only appropriate for very mature readers, due to some language, violence, and occasional suggestive content.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Alas, Babylon”

  1. I read this one a few years ago on my wife’s recommendation. Loved it. I always find this kind of book to be inspiring, making me think about how I’d respond to such a situation.

    BTW, the television show Jericho was basically an adaptation of the central premise of this book, though I don’t think anyone ever acknowledged it.

  2. I read Earth Abides a few months ago and was disgusted with the lack if initiative and imagination on the part of the survivors of a world catastrophe. Your recommendation sounds better. Since science fiction is rarely on my radar, I’ll add it to my mental list of books to be on the lookout for.

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