ALAS, BABYLON by Pat Frank. This is a great American classic about the struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s like the AMC’s The Walking Dead minus all the zombies. The story is set in the late 1950s when the United States was deeply entrenched in the Cold War against Soviet Russia. The book begins moments before a nuclear war between the two nations, but this isn’t an action thriller. The nuclear fallout seems to miss a few pockets of humanity, one being the tiny Florida town of Ft. Repose. The story is really about Mark Bragg, a man trying to keep his family alive against the ever-present threats of bandits, starvation, and radiation.
“You see, all their lives, ever since they’ve known anything, they’ve lived under the shadow of war – atomic war. For them the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it.” (Helen Bragg to Randy Bragg, Chapter 4, p. 84).
This is one of the most frightening quotes of the novel. It is, unfortunately, true for those who grew up during the Cold War. We were taught that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was all but inevitable, and we were taught how to respond (Civil Defense fallout shelters in the basements of large buildings and the famous “Duck and Cover” films). For those of us who grew up in the Cold War, the abnormal (the ever-present threat of nuclear war and its aftermath) was normal. The Bragg children, Ben and Peyton, for whom the “abnormal” had become the “normal,” seem to have less trouble accepting and adapting to the new realities of life than did the adults.
4) “…The struggle was not against a human enemy, or for victory. The struggle, for those who survived “The Day”, was to survive the next.” (Chapter 6, p. 123).
No one, at least in the novel’s setting in Florida, ever saw an enemy soldier. There were no invaders or foreign troops to fight. The military fight was in the hands of the U.S. military. For the people of Fort Repose, the fight was not against an invader with a sickle-and-hammer insignia on his sleeve, but simply to survive. This was, by far, the hardest fight and one whose outcome could not be predicted. This is one of the major themes of the novel: survival.