Study Guide

Alas, Babylon

By Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon Introduction

It's a good thing we live in a safe and predictable world where nuclear war could never happen. Otherwise, we'd be a lot more freaked out reading Alas, Babylon.

Oh, whoops.

Actually, our world is, in fact, definitely not safe and predictable, it turns out. Nuclear war is a threat.

In fact, as of 2017 the Doomsday Clock—"an internationally recognized design that conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making "—was set to 2 ½ minutes to midnight. That's the closest to midnight (or, you know, the destruction of civilization) since the hydrogen bomb was tested in 1953. (Source)

In other words, we're closer to possible destruction than we were when Alas, Babylon was written in 1959.

One of the first major examples of post-apocalyptic literature, the Alas, Babylon depicts a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union that instantly kills most residents of both countries and then some. And those folks get off easy, relatively speaking. The real struggle is yet to come for those who survive.

We follow one particular group in Fort Repose, Florida. Led by Randy Bragg, who was warned of the impending war by his brother Mark, these survivors struggle to rebuild their community amidst horrible circumstances. There's no electricity. Not much food. And that's not even getting into the gangs of roving criminals who attack and rob anyone they can.

Along the way, we're left to wonder how we would react in a situation like this. Would we toughen up and protect our loved ones like Randy Bragg? Or would we crumble under the pressure, like countless other characters in the novel? That's one of the most effective things about Alas, Babylon, actually. It's hard not to put yourself in the characters' shoes.

It helps that author Pat Frank is one of the few figures who can be considered an authority on the subject matter. Pat Frank is the pen name of Harry Hart Frank, a journalist who reported on both World War II and the Korean War. He also served as a government consultant, which adds an extra level of credibility to his depiction of grand military maneuverings.

Will it give you nightmares of mushroom clouds? Maybe.

But it might also make you think long and hard about the devastating effects of nuclear war, and make you work (in whatever way you can) against the threat of this horrific kind of warfare.

What is Alas, Babylon About and Why Should I Care?

We'd forgive you for thinking there's probably no good reason to care about a mid-century sci-fi book that never won a major award. After all, the thing's decades old—it can't be terribly relevant, right?

Wrong.

Let's play a little compare and contrast game, shall we?

Alas, Babylon starts with the following premise: there's tension between the United States and Russian, and that tension is playing out in Syria. This book was published in 1959.

Now take a gander at this article, headlined "Russia accuses U.S. of 'deadly provocations' against Russian troops in Syria." Now check the date of the article's publication: October 4, 2017.

Alas, Babylon concerns itself with the threat and the reality of all-out nuclear war. Again, this is from a book published in 1959.

On October 6, 2017, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Reporting on the prize, the New York Times states that, "The prize came against the backdrop of the most serious worries about a possible nuclear conflict since the Cold War […]"(Source)

Yeah. We wish Alas, Babylon was irrelevant. Instead it's terrifyingly timely.

While odds are low we'll witness anything resembling nuclear war in our lifetimes, there's always the chance that today could be the day. Maybe a fighter pilot accidentally hits a civilian target. Maybe one country invades another. Maybe someone accidentally sits on the nuclear launch button.

As Alas, Babylon shows, it's always a possibility.

Instead of focusing only on nuclear weapons, however, Alas, Babylon focuses on their aftermath. That's important. Alas, Babylon wants us to see how much of modern society we take for granted, from refrigeration to electricity to medicine. All of it could go away in an instant.

Don't worry, though: Alas, Babylon isn't just a terrifying slog through the nuclear apocalypse. The point of the novel isn't to leave you freaked out of your mind, but rather to have you imagine how you might react in the situation…and how you would work to survive.

Alas, Babylon Resources

Websites

The Doomsday Clock
Every year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists release their annual "Doomsday Clock," which measures how close we currently are to the nuclear apocalypse. We're scared to click.

Visit Florida
On the bright side, here's Florida's tourism website if you're looking to book a trip. Hopefully Babylon will still be standing by the time you get back.

Movie or TV Productions

Alas, Babylon on Playhouse 90 (1960)
Although Alas, Babylon hasn't been adapted into a feature film, the story was told on the anthology television series Playhouse 90 a mere year after it was published.

Articles and Interviews

A Threat to Nuclear Arms Control
This piece details a 2017 effort to curtail the global nuclear weapon trade. Just goes to show that nuclear war isn't a bygone concern.

Pat Frank's Obiturary
As dark as it is to read someone obituary, Frank's is worth reading because it provides insight into his life—and boy was it an interesting one.

Video

Is the U.S. Ready for a Nuclear Attack?
Oh come on now; we're going to have nightmares for weeks.

The Cold War Arms Race
For more insight into the history of the Cold War, check out this short but informative video from History.

Audio

Preparing for a Nuclear Attack (Seriously)
Does this list include crying in the fetal position? No? Well, back to the drawing board for us.

Who Has the Power to Launch Nuclear Weapons?
Want to know who exactly in the government has the power to launch nukes? Listen to this killer (literally) NPR piece for more insight.

Images

Mount Dora
This is Mount Dora, Florida in 1920, thirty-nine years before the publication of Alas, Babylon. It's supposedly the real-life inspiration for the fictional Fort Repose.

The Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki
This is a picture of the horrible nuclear explosion over Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II. And just think—the nukes dropped in Alas, Bablyon are way bigger than this one. Scary.