I'll admit this book is the one that started my love for post-holocaust sci-fi. I first read it when I was fourteen and I read it no less than fifteen times that year. So I might have a little difficulty being objective. But I'll try.
Alas, Babylon was one of the first books to depict what the world might be like after nuclear war. Pat Frank said specifically that he wrote it to show people what that sort of war may be like. The story centers on a small town in Florida, Fort Respose, and specifically a man named Randy Bragg, who lives on a family owned orange grove, and his family and friends. The threat of nuclear war is imminent, and his brother sends his wife and children to Fort Respose to stay with Randy, as he thinks they will be safe there. Hours after arriving, the first bombs are dropped, and the world descends into catastrophe. Fort Respose has its own form of these catastrophes and the rest of the book deals with how they deal with them. Some people are in denial, some take advantage of the situation to victimize others, and some - Randy and his family included - try to make the best of it. This is a very Fifties book, and there's period-typical discussion of race and segregation (Randy once ran for a local office but lost, in part because he said when asked about segregation "I believe in the Constitution of the United States - all of it") as well as gender roles (a woman becomes the President after the attacks, which is met with some surprise, but she explains on the radio that Washington was hit first and she was the only Cabinet member not in the city at the time, and Randy comments once that women need a man around). Even with all that, I still recommend the book without hesitation. Randy, his family, the Henry family who lives on the property (a black family whom has worked for the Braggs for some time and are also Randy's good friends), Florence Wechek the Western Union officer, Dan Gunn the town doctor, and a variety of other characters are what make the book memorable, and if you want to start reading post-holocaust books I think this is the best place to start.
A word about two comments I have commonly seen in regards to this book. One is that the war is started by the Russians. It is not. Chapter Four makes it very clear that an accidental missile strike in the Middle East (conventional) starts it. The ones who make the accidental strike are American. Another comment is that the book depicts an "idyllic" post-holocaust scenario. While it is true that in comparison to many of the books that would later come about the subject Alas, Babylon is more optimistic, but I would hesitate to call it "idyllic." In the course of the book we see a diabetic woman die from lack of insulin (since it needs refrigeration), there are reports of mass starvation, outbreaks of cholera and smallpox, death from radiation poisoning, roaming bands of criminals, and the town doctor has no supplies to treat pretty much anything. The lack of electricity means no running water, and there's a salt shortage. Not the worst that could be thrown at you in such a situation, but hardly "idyllic."
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