By Trevor Busch
There can be little doubt the threat of nuclear annihilation has taken something of a backseat in today’s world to seemingly omnipresent problems like terrorism. The prospect of hydrogen bombs raining down on unsuspecting North American cities is one that seems to have faded in the 21st century with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the confrontation between superpowers that was a defining aspect of the latter half of the 20th century.
While we might think of ourselves as more insulated from the nuclear nightmare because of shifts in global ideology, the reality of the current situation with regard to nuclear weapons is really no less frightening in today’s world. Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear proliferation has only escalated, not declined, with countries like Pakistan and North Korea joining the nuclear club. The technology to deliver those weapons has only become more refined and precise.
Focusing on a reduced nuclear stockpile rather than the hugely inflated arms race of the late 1960s doesn’t mean that nations like Russia or the United States really have any less ability to inflict apocalyptic destruction on each other if they so choose. And this is to say nothing of the increasing likelihood that some day a nuclear device will fall into the hands of terrorists with the means and will to use it.
In short, we are not much safer that we were 40 or 50 years ago. We may no longer be on the brink, but the fundamental problem hasn’t gone away. Author Pat Frank’s classic apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon (1959) was a tale written for the post-Hiroshima generation, at a time when nuclear annihilation seemed to be a prospect that wasn’t so far fetched as it seems to be today, however illusory that perception may be.
Telling the story of a group of survivors in central Florida after a horrifying nuclear confrontation between Soviet Russia and the U.S. and her NATO allies, one might be tempted to consider Alas, Babylon a dated and anachronistic account of apocalypse, lost to the days of duck and cover and digging fallout shelters in your backyard.
Although the novel is certainly a period piece, its main theme of a group of individuals confronting chaos and the unknown while struggling to maintain their moral integrity and civility in a now-barbarous world are timeless.
Unlike similar novels before or since, Frank’s Alas, Babylon could be described as survivalist fiction, but Frank’s main interest is how individuals confront the darkness together and the impact of apocalypse on their character. Spiced with a withering sense of humour throughout, Frank is also highly critical of the escalating arms race and the decisions that were being made that contributed to the sense of nuclear insanity that tended to pervade the late 1950s and early 1960s.
An ex-newspaper man, Frank worked closely with government in the last years of his career helping define policy and raising awareness about the dangers inherent in the nuclear arms race and the continuing confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. His last work before his death, How to Survive the H-Bomb and Why (1962), is an account of how to live in a post-holocaust world, and to succeed in survival — which has risen in popularity again since the advent of the modern phenomenon of “doomsday preppers”.
Alas, Babylon, of course, is easily Frank’s most famous work, and the singular novel for which he is best remembered. Never out of print since the time of its first publication, it is considered a classic in a genre which includes works like Nevil Shute’s dark vision On the Beach (1957), Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959), George R. Stewart’s outbreak masterpiece Earth Abides (1949), or J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962).
One criticism of the novel is that Frank in many ways seems to skirt the true dangers and outcome that would be inherent in a full-scale nuclear exchange between superpowers. Hardly a novel that can be couched in the idea of a “cozy catastrophe”, such as novels like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), this is one criticism that tends to ring true in Alas, Babylon.
However, at the time it was written, the potential dangers of the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb attack were still relatively poorly understood. On the other hand, avoiding penning some of the horrors that might be witnessed of radiation-ravaged survivors pouring into rural areas post-attack is probably a weakness that would be picked up on by modern readers, but would probably not have seemed out of place in 1959.
Frank also attacks the racism and segregation that was still institutionalized in the deep south of 1959, placing black characters in prominent positions throughout the novel, while painting them as more resourceful and valuable in a post-holocaust world than their former white taskmasters, even hinging one of the pivotal moments of the novel on the bravery of a black man defending other whites against a roving gang of post-apocalyptic highwaymen.
Despite its advancing age and subject matter, Alas, Babylon still remains an entirely readable and plausible account of a group of survivors confronting the post-holocaust night, overcoming their past prejudices, bigotry and occupations to work together for survival, while offering up an enduring message of hope.