Review by Mark Wilson
he mutual fear and loathing shared by the United States and the Soviet Union during the worst years of the Cold War was invented by governments; but the insanity of nuclear proliferation still had the the power to taint the everyday lives of ordinary people. The hideous prospect of a sudden, irreversible wave of radioactive death was as omnipresent as the sky, and as difficult to face as the sun.
Like any small town in America in the late 1950s, the sleepy river community of Fort Repose, Fla., found ways to ignore the threat most of the time. Randolph Bragg, the languid young descendant of the town's founder, and his neighbors--a typically Floridian mix of proud locals and Yankee transplants--persisted in an easy confidence that nuclear war couldn't really happen, even as the news on the radio--always bad--becomes alarming. Then, suddenly, The Day arrives. All at once the 20th century comes crashing down, and the nightmare of survival begins.
Though tipped off to the coming Apocalypse by his brother in the Air Force (using their childhood code for disaster, the \"Alas, Babylon!\" thundered by the fire-and-brimstone local preacher), Randy still has no idea how to meet the crisis. He can only be thankful for the realization, slow in coming to most of his neighbors, that he must discard his casual approach to life and reinvent himself, or ***. The disintegration of the American way of life escalates before his eyes: food vanishes, gasoline becomes gold, and money is worthless paper. Abandoned pets revert to wild animals, vicious cutthroats spring up on the roads, and nearby towns become sinkholes of disease and squalor. Contact with the outside world dwindles to nothing. With that isolation comes the need to hold together the only society left to them: Fort Repose.
Speculative fiction usually imagines a future progressing forward. But Alas, Babylon deals with a future jerked the other way, where people living in the present are thrown back into primitive times. The novel's original impetus was a flat homily on the unwinnability of nuclear war, but surprisingly it is the characters of Alas, Babylon that bring the story alive. They create a galvanizing tale of human perseverance and growth far more interesting than the political lesson the story set out to impart.
In fact, Alas, Babylon's picture of post-apocalypse life is strangely compelling. Once an unmotivated loner whose relative wealth allowed him to play at being an attorney, Randy becomes not only harder and leaner but more vital and alive. The privations endured in the first few months and years after the disaster purify him. His life, cleansed of 20th-century dissolutions and recrafted with tomato-ketchup and toil, becomes profoundly worth living. He takes charge not only of himself but of his community, bringing it back from the brink of savagery and desperation. Part of the author's subtext may be that the complacency of entitled society has helped create a world in which it is possible for nations to destroy each other; but the result is powerful character development.
More surprisingly, this 40-year-old story about the long-dead Cold War is still fresh and provocative. The story's vividness and honesty make it possible to imagine what it would be like to live in a world after bombs have destroyed the cities and unraveled the fabric of every day life. It's discomforting, and it becomes more discomforting in the context of the string of fortunate conditions and coincidences that make Fort Repose fare better than the average isolated town. These people go through hell--and they're the lucky ones.
A nice touch: The way that pre-war conventions like racism dissolve with few words said. A good read. -- Mark