One of my favorite oldies is a book written by Pat Frank called Alas Babylon. Frank’s book was published in 1959 as science fiction: however, at the time I think that many people probably thought the book could be a very real possibility. The subject of this book occurred to the author after having a conversation with a man who ask Frank’s opinion on a question that many American during this era thought about, “What do you think would happen if the Russkies hit us when we went looking---you know like Pearl Harbor?” Frank had background writing about military subjects and had even recently talked about this same scenario with some British officers. In his prologue Frank’s answer to the question was that perhaps “five or six million Americans would be killed, but we would win the war.” This conversation got him thinking more about what it would be like for those that survived an atomic blast and thus Alas Babylon was hatched.
Two elements in Pat Frank’s book have made Alas Babylon one my favorite reads. The premise for the plot of course is one, but it is how Frank takes that premise and develops it that I find very amazing and very believable. Remember the fear and shock of 9-11, multiply that by millions and the devastation present all over the United States not just New York or Washington DC, and you can begin to gain an understanding of what his characters are dealing with. Unlike 9-11 though, Frank’s characters must deal with no local government and a federal government that is unable to communicate with the masses. Most daily conveniences such as electricity, running water, and fresh food delivered daily to your neighborhood grocery store, and radio, TV, and newspapers are a memory. If this did happened, what would be the most important things to do right after the blast? Two weeks later, and several months after that? How would survivors obtain and store food? What would people do if they got sick? Where would they go to get medicine or fresh water? These are the issues Frank’s main character, Randy deals with and a whole lot more to boot.
Perhaps the element I think Pat Frank does best in his book is creating and developing his main character. Randy starts off as a less than up standing sort of guy. He is an alcoholic and a bit of a Peeping Tom, who has wasted most of his life on the pursuit of just getting by and doing as little as he can. By the end of the book, Randy goes through a complete transformation. The various stages that Randy goes through to get to this transformation makes Alas Babylon exciting and thought provoking even today.
While I would not recommend this book for younger readers (sixth or seventh grader), mainly because Randy’s character is quite raunchy in the beginning, I do still recommend it to many of my students who like science fiction because of the plot and the characterization.