Monday, December 13, 2010

ALAS, BABYLON by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon is a 1959 novel by Pat Frank. Centering on the inhabitants of a small Florida town, it chronicles the events leading up to, during and following a full-scale nuclear war.

In this, one of the original nuclear apocalypse stories, Frank does a good job working through the premise, and while the novel gets off to something of a slow start, Frank keeps the pages turning. He’s primarily concerned with the requirements for immediate survival, and he does an adequate job on this front.

The biggest knock on Alas, Babylon is Frank’s writing, which often feels amateurish. Showing a distinct distrust of the reader, he regularly belabors his audience with overly-detailed descriptions of people and things, and constantly puts artificial, expository dialogue in the mouths of his characters. Frank also skips or rushes through a number of important scenes. That the 2005 Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of this novel is riddled with typos doesn’t help matters.

The second-biggest knock on Alas, Babylon is the severe degree to which Frank underestimates the effect of radiation, both in regard to population survival and post-nuclear ecology. This creates both an unusually large number of survivors and a sound reliance on fishing and agriculture only months after the war. It doesn’t ruin the book, but it’s rather jarring.

With his focus on immediate survival, Frank tends to avoid looking at the long-term ramifications altogether – his characters aren’t particularly interested in them, either. Instead he implies that over time, humanity in general and the United States in particular will recover, and even restore themselves to where they were. Frank suggests a purely secular hope for humanity that feels extremely shallow.

On the whole, Frank does a solid job of working through the apocalypse, and the story overcomes its flaws enough that Alas, Babylon is a thoroughly readable if not particularly wonderful novel.