Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon

Read March 2016
Recommended for apocalypse fans, historians
 ★     ★     ★    ★

 

Alas, Babylon was one of the more perplexing literary experiences I’ve had this year. Written by Pat Frank, it’s the story of Randy Bragg and a small Florida town, Fort Repose, after America and the Soviet Union declare war in the late 1950s.

Randy’s doing nothing much in the family house in Fort Repose, Florida except drinking and charming local women–with the exception of his neighbor Florence, who suspects him of being a Peeping Tom–when his brother sends a cable with their code phrase, Alas, Babylon.

“As the minutes and hours eroded away, and no word came from Moscow, he became more and more certain that a massive strike had been ordered. He diagnosed this negative intelligence as more ominous than almost anything that could’ve happened.”

Randy begins grocery shopping while Mark packs up his family in Omaha to send them to Randy’s house and together with the neighbors, they navigate survival after a missile strike.

“The sight of war’s roseate birthmark on the sky choked back their words.”

A Review in Three Parts

The Time Traveler’s Version: five stars

Most likely, the ideal way to experience this book published in 1959 was to be born in 1935-1945. Much of the story has a strong philosophical tone best contextualized by the time period. I found it fascinating that Frank is partly aware of the influence of cultural epoch: “The incident was important only because it was self-revelatory. Randy knew he would have to play by the old rules. He could not shuck his code, or sneak out of his era.” However, there’s so much contained that is commentary on the conflicts of the era: the tiniest beginnings of Civil Rights and Equal Rights reflected in Randy’s relationships with women and the black family living next door remain strongly influenced by his chivalry and paternalism. Then there’s the general confidence people have that there is an ‘after,’ as in ‘after the government comes and restores everything,” and the hope that nuclear strikes are survivable. In the decades since, our confidence in systems has diminished while belief in the survival of the strong has grown.

Nonetheless, it was an influential book during its time, and one of the few early apocalyptic that have the feel of reality as people then understood it. Frank was a career journalist who worked in New York and Washington and as a war correspondent during WWII and during the Korean War, and I felt like Mark’s experiences at the command post sounded real.

The Audio Version: five stars

The second best way–to those lacking access to Kemper’s time-mower–is to listen to the Audible version read by Will Patton. It won a well-deserved Audie in 2012 and was even more enjoyable than my reading. Patton is a fabulous voice actor and brought each word to life. Although it is mostly from Randy’s point of view, there are other view points, along with specific and general dialogue. Patton nailed almost every one, with the only exception being a “Boston Radcliffe” accent. The southern inflections sounded genuine and even a ten year-old girl was done well, but my favorite were his variations on the radio. From the verbal swagger of a radio jockey to the clipped tones of a Civil Defense broadcast, I too felt like I was listening to a broadcast. When Patton voiced Randy’s thought, “squashed his face like a potato,” I laughed out loud at a line I hadn’t noticed when reading. Clearly, a superior reader who won me as a fan.

The Modern Version: three and 1/2 stars

I tend to skim a lot, particularly toward the end of a book. It’s been a lifelong habit and likely one of the reasons I enjoy re-reading books. My first read through was done at my normal pace and I finished the book feeling satisfied. I started over with the audio, listening to Will Patton reading. I loved his voice acting–but started to hear the words more clearly. Frank is clearly ambivalent about equality of many kinds, and it is demonstrated in Randy’s philosophical musings, in privileged interaction with others, and with authorial choices in plotting. Let’s just say that in 2016, you wouldn’t give the black kid a spear and the white kid a gun, or have so many discussions about “going back to our Neolithic days.” While women get a whiff of equality in Randy’s girlfriend, Liz, half-proposing and a woman being left in control of the United States, there’s one of Randy’s former lovers, Rita, who is basically characterized as an “exotic” “man-collector.” Then there’s the bizarre episode where Mark’s wife Helen has a ‘mental break’ and is psychoanalyzed by Liz and the Doctor.

I do believe none of the characterization is ill-intentioned, but as a modern reader, its the same-ol’ ‘-isms, and just because they seem benevolent doesn’t mean they aren’t tiresome. Further, we are now an audience that is fairly well educated on disasters, so some of the mistakes we witness Randy and the community make seem laughable.

My suggestion is to read it, but it’ll work best if you borrow a time-mower (keys hanging on a hook in the shed) or listen to Will Patton.

Many, many thanks to the people who suggested it when I was looking for an apocalypse, and a thousand thanks to Naomi who shared her audio copy.

 
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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

  1. I had a similar experience with Alas, Babylon’s 10-year predecessor, Earth Abides. Dated paternal attitudes toward race and gender spike up the cringe factor and made it difficult to enjoy. Fortunately, the last third opens up into a more internal exploration, leaving less room for cringy social behavior. The cringe is worth suffering for that final part.

    Alas, Babylon will be my next classic apocalypse novel.

    And I also like to skim and then listen. It’s always surprising how each mode reveals different key things about novels. Actors are so useful for highlighting things that readers will normally not notice.

    • thebookgator says:

      Hm, 10 years earlier would be interesting, culturally, if not enjoyable. Definitely pre-equality rumblings. I agree–I found listening very satisfying this time, although it took a lot longer to get through. It did make the -isms I’d probably ignore all the more prominent, though. I’ll look forward to one of your entertaining reviews on Babylon.

  2. Melora says:

    Thank you for the excellent review! I appreciate the heads-up about the dates social attitudes. This is on my list, and, given how many of my GR friends have enjoyed it and the Florida setting, I am going to read it at some point, but now I know enough about it to wait until I’m in a mood to properly appreciate it!

  3. Bookwraiths says:

    Thanks for the thorough review. I’m not big on apocalypse novels lately, so I doubt I’ll be taking the plunge with this one. Not sure if my current disdain for these type of stories is nothing more than having read/seen too many lately or if our real world problems have burned me out on meltdowns in society, but, whatever the reason, this isn’t an area I’m dying to read about: classic story or not. And, to be completely honest, I really can’t deal with that many -isms right now. I would love a story completely devoid of -isms at all.

    • thebookgator says:

      Thank you, Bookwraiths. I understand. I think one aspect I failed to stress in my review was the prevailing hope–like Station Eleven, bad things happen, but good is rewarded in the end. That’s what sold me on giving this a try in an era where all the apocalypse is followed by man’s inhumanity to man. I also hear you on the -isms.

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