I keep hearing that dystopian and apocalyptic fiction has saturated the book market in the last few years, but I feel like these disaster scenarios have always been popular, really hitting their stride in the mid-twentieth century. A few of my favorites that come to mind (The Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, and I Am Legend for example) all come from the 40s and 50s.
What I love most about the apocalyptic stories from that era, at least from my limited sampling, is that the reader often gets to experience the disaster happen, and Alas, Babylon does the same. The worry of nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union was a major concern during this time, and this novel imagines what would happen if a war did break out. The main character in this, Randy Bragg, has a brother in the military that is able to warn him in time of an inevitable nuclear war. Randy is then able to try to acquire the provisions his family will need if they live through the attack.
We follow this group as they struggle to survive, to protect and feed themselves, and I found it thoroughly interesting. I always enjoy the thought experiment angle of apocalyptic fiction, imagining what I’d ideally do in a similar situation. That’s often a bit of a depressing activity, but not as much with this. Alas, Babylon is an optimistic novel of a community coming together when things seem hopeless, but it does play out to be a bit too easy for everyone. This is really a best case scenario of finding yourself in the middle of a nuclear war. There is violence, and medical issues, and some food concerns, but it’s not as devastating as some other apocalyptic novels. As a result, it didn’t tend to stir up a lot of emotion. There were a few emotionally charged scenes, but a lot of the book didn’t feel as impactful as it could have, particularly in the end. I guess without those lows, it’s hard to reach those highs.
I enjoyed the book, and Will Patton’s narration was fantastic. It felt like he was bringing more life to the characters than what was actually on the page. Pat Frank, whose real name was Harry Hart, was very involved world politics, working as a wartime journalist and eventually with the United Nations. He wrote a few novels concerning war and nuclear threat, and even wrote a non-fiction novella called How To Survive the H Bomb And Why. This was his most famous novel, and I’m not sure I’ll read his others, but I will keep an eye out for them.