Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (Book Review)

Alas, Babylon Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a postapocalyptic classic for good reason.

I first read this when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and I have to wonder now what made my mom think this was good brain fodder for an early teen. But on the other hand, I’d always read above my level and at that age, I’m not sure I was capable of truly processing the enormity and horror of all-out thermonuclear warfare anyway. I remember enjoying this book as a survival adventure.

But that was a loooong time ago, and the book has been on my mind the last few months. Coincidence, with the easily-baited Captain Chaos in control of America’s nukes following Election 2016? I think not. And then there’s the synchronicity of finding a copy for less than a dollar in a second -hand store, after thinking repeatedly that I’d like to read it again. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be, like, a primer. If the Cheeto Jesus does bring Armageddon upon us, I’d prefer to be at ground zero, thanks.

It takes me back to 9/11. We all remember where we were. I was getting my kids ready for daycare and school and myself ready for work when the then-12-year-old Monster (who watched the morning news; I didn’t) came and told me a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Oh crap, I thought, what a terrible accident. Some time later, he told me another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. And I thought: Oh, God, that’s not two accidents; we’re going to be at war. I was scared, I remember, but more numb than anything; my body and brain, self-anesthetizing. We were at the other end of the country and I was able to go into keep-calm-and-carry-on mode. I cannot imagine the horror of seeing the flash and the mushroom cloud coming from a city not far from you.

The book is a wee bit dated after almost sixty years. Women are praised for being “all woman” in their ability to continue producing meals and raising children in the aftermath (like really–what else are they going to do? What else would the men do, without the women? And so on ), while alternately being reduced to a houseful of weeping, wailing, hair-tearing sacks of estrogen after a child has broken the rules and the goldfish have been eaten by the cat. It’s even a bit Biblical at one point, the old bit of handing your wife off to your brother if you die. The matter of race is treated with condescending stereotyping, and bigotry of the time is clear: Should we invite the black family, who so generously let us run a pipe from their artesian well so we too can have typhoid- and radiation-free water, to the cookout of all the meat we must eat or lose to spoilage, because it’s acceptable to mix class at social events, but what about mixing color? Ugh.

Misogyny and racism aside, the book could be about a nuclear holocaust in 2017 rather than 1959. Survival without first-world perks is the same, whether you’re used to cell phones and cable TV or party lines and transistor radios. The communications and grocery stores and antibiotics and gasoline and electricity are still gone. Fallout is still insidious and deadly. And actually, the people in 1959 might have had it easier; I bet a whole lot more of them knew how to grow vegetables and sew clothes and make snares and go to the library and look things up in books.

An excellent read, recommended.

Bookshelves: classic, end-of-the-world, heebie-jeebies, post-apocalyptic, survival

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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