Alas, Babylon Summary

Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon

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Alas, Babylon Summary

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American writer Harry Hart Frank, under the pseudonym Pat Frank, published Alas, Babylon in 1959. The novel explores what the result would have been had the Cold War actually resulted in a nuclear war, and its most feared aftermath realized. It is one of the earliest examples of apocalyptic fiction to have grown out of the nuclear age and it has retained its popularity among the myriad examples that followed. It is set in the town of Fort Repose, Florida, with a population of about five thousand—a fictional representation of Mount Dora, Florida, a city in the northern central part of the state. The title of Pat Frank’s work comes from the biblical Book of Revelation, in which it is stated, “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgment come.”

The main characters in the novel are brothers Mark and Randy Bragg and their family members. Mark is the older of the two brothers and is an officer in the military. Randy is a lawyer and a heavy drinker who lives the stereotypically carefree life of one born into old wealth. As the story unfolds, Mark sends his wife and their children to live with Randy in Fort Repose, since Omaha,  where Mark is, is a potential target of the Soviets. The novel describes the destruction that nations inflict upon one another in nuclear warfare. In time, events lead Randy to become the leader of a small group of survivors whose objective is creating a new civilization in which human life will be more strongly valued. Within the surviving society, various people represent the struggle between idealism and self-centered greed. Survival of the fittest becomes the overarching factor in Fort Repose.

Meanwhile, at the same time that Mark’s family is on its way to the airport in Orlando, a flyer, Peewee Cobb, is on patrol above the Mediterranean. A heat-seeking missile that he set in motion veers off course and to a Soviet location where nuclear submarines are based. Unlike in earlier times, when the sides might have found a more peaceful way to move forward from this incident, now the strategic course adopted by the Soviets guarantees wide-scale repercussions. The Soviets retaliate, leading the United States to launch a counter-attack beginning in Omaha. Both superpowers suffer widespread loss, and World War III begins on what becomes known as “The Day.” Although Florida suffers contamination in the region of Fort Repose, Fort Repose itself remains an area of relative peace. Focus remains on the Bragg family and its struggle to survive the nuclear holocaust.

Society in Fort Repose begins to change on The Day, as atomic bombs hit Florida. Jacksonville and Orlando are early targets. Communication systems, power, and basic supplies are destroyed in Fort Repose, although it is been spared the far-reaching fallout. Randy undergoes a fast transformation, replacing his drinking and carefree ways with taking on the responsibility of becoming a leader among the survivors, a dedicated family man, and ultimately a defender of Fort Repose. Others in the community do not respond as nobly as Randy. Suicides take place, hoarding and looting become common, and robberies and murders occur. Randy is not completely alone in his quest to preserve Fort Repose, as there are others who also display compassion for their fellow survivors. The town does revive itself, albeit on a small local scale, as a place devoted to preserving mankind and the basic tenets of human life. When the possibility arises for those remaining in Fort Repose to leave, the residents all chose to remain.

Alas, Babylon in many ways set the thematic template for the subsequent works of apocalyptic fiction that have expanded the genre in the following decades. Rather than focusing on those at the center of combat, the novel explores the threat of a war, the magnitude of which has never been seen before, through its effect on average citizens. Frank also develops key themes including the resilient nature of mankind (how facing extinction brings this quality out rather that crushing it) and the need to remain hopeful (the idea that assistance will ultimately arrive if people can band together and survive until it does). The power of the individual and the potential each person has to contribute to the survival of the group are shown as paramount in coping with the aftermath of disaster. Randy summons clear thinking and leadership abilities which up to that point in his life had gone untapped, making him, like characters in later apocalyptic fiction, an unlikely hero among ordinary men. Frank also demonstrates that technology is a double edged sword, another theme that has become common in the genre: while it can greatly enhance and improve the human condition, it can also render people helpless when it is taken away.