Sunday, June 12, 2005

"Alas, Babylon"

Author: Pat Frank
Lippincott, 1959
Apocalypse Type: Nuclear War
Rating: **** (of 5)

Overall, Alas, Babylon rightly deserves its place as a classic of the apocalyptic genre, but that's primarily because Frank's characters are so engaging and realistic. He writes with flair and color, and the people are ones you might meet in real life.

The social events are plausible, but readers have to realize that what happens to his fictional town of Fort Repose, FL, would in fact be the luckiest end of the spectrum of possibilities, with the book only barely making references to the far darker and more tortured reality that would be afflicting the vast majority of a full-scale nuclear war's survivors. Compared to most post-war places, Frank's setting is an edenic paradise -- very few deaths, very little radiation or disease, only minimal trouble finding food, only passing mentions of the horrors going on outside.

Actually, Fort Repose exists in a physically impossible bubble of safety. The characters can see the bombs go off over Orlando, which the book says is two hours away, one of them gets temporarily blinded by the bombs over Tampa, and one sees a distant flash that marks the demise of Jacksonville. All of those would put Fort Repose somewhere around Ocala or Gainesville, but at one point, they say they're lucky the Russians never hit Patrick AFB (aka Cape Canaveral), which is due east of them. That creates a little geography problem, since Canaveral is due east of... Orlando. Anyone living between them would be radioactive toast from Orlando's fallout.

Some of the book's scientific/technical problems exist because Frank didn't know about some of the things we've since learned, especially the possibility of climatic changes sparked by such a war. For him, Florida's climate is still the same... in fact, it's impossibly good, with no rainstorms dropping radioactive ash, no hurricanes, not even the unseasonable frosts that can hit the state in normal years. The story never suggests the possibility of nuclear winter or nuclear autumn, either of which would've made his characters' lives much harder even with Florida's low latitude probably tempering the effect. (That means temperatures around freezing rather than -30 F if nuclear winter theory is correct, almost certainly wiping out any crops then growing and probably preventing the next year's growth, too.)

It is clear from the events, social situation, and technology available to the characters that the book's action is set around the time it was written; there's no effort to imagine more advanced technology, and segregation is still running amok. But that conflicts with some of the things characters say about the US and Soviet nuclear capabilities, leading me to believe Mr. Frank bought into the then-popular propaganda of Soviet power.

At one point, for example, a character estimates the number of enemy subs at 600 to 750 ... numbers the Soviets have never come close to. A detailed chart at the National Resources Defense Council website shows the USSR's missile sub fleet peaked at 89 boats in 1978 and peaked at 2956 SLBM (sub-launched ballistic missile) warheads in 1989. The NRDC shows the Soviets had just 11 missile subs and just 33 SLBMs in 1959. Even if we assume he was counting subs that weren't carrying ballistic missiles, there's no way in hell they had 600 of them.

Likewise, there's a strong subtext that the Soviets were overpowering us in overall number of warheads, but in fact, they were very, very far behind.

Specifically,The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives these figures, which include SLBMs, for the reality of 1959:

US stockpile = 12,298 warheads (2496 of them strategic) totalling 19,054.62 megatons (MT), or an average of 645 KT each.
USSR stockpile = 1050 warheads (283 of them strategic), total megatonnage unknown, but if we assume the Soviet warheads were even twice as powerful as ours on average (they did have some tendency to go for bigger bombs), that still means they only had around 1355 MT.

Of course, getting hit with 1355 MT would still make it the worst day in American history, with the damage probably enough to cripple us, as the story depicts. Make no mistake -- his list of destroyed cities is very long, including most of the places you'd expect (although Denver survives to become the new capital). But Frank does forget about the various side effects a war like that would have, including such things as shattered communications and loss of fuel, medical, and other supplies. He depicts those on the local scale with characters unable to use cars after a while and getting nothing but sporadic Conelrad announcements until the radio stations run out of power, but has the US government still flying heliocopters and jets a year afterward. I seriously doubt that would be true in all but a very limited nuclear war, largely b/c oil supplies would logically be major targets, and the war itself would make oil transport impossible. (He does hint at this at the end, when a character says the country's remaining nuclear power is its only hope, but nuclear plants require a very high-tech base which would not exist anymore, even if the plants themselves did.)

Frank also seriously downplays the psychological effects such a catastrophe would probably have. There are no major cases of mental illness in the Fort Repose population, no obvious signs of grief (even in the two kids who know their dad probably died in Omaha & have therefore lost their home & all their friends; that's a HUGE stretch of reality), no major addictions as ways to "cope" with the stress (in fact, the hero, Randy, gives up his booze entirely), etc.

In reality, studies have shown that although the majority of survivors of a traumatic event would recover within 6-16 months, about 34% of people who experienced a single bombing would develop the symptoms of PTSD -- that's a single bombing, never mind an event which they'd immediately recognize as horrific beyond anything ever experienced by anybody. Generally, the effects are worse for human-caused events than for natural events. The same website notes, "the following types of exposure place survivors at high risk for a range of postdisaster problems:

Exposure to mass destruction or death
Toxic contamination
Sudden or violent death of a loved one
Loss of home or community."

Nuclear war would almost guarantee ALL of those would affect almost everyone who survived.

With all of that said, however, the book IS a good read. There are none of the impossibly heroic or impossibly evil characters that seem to plague this genre, no overblown preoccupation with religion even though the title is a reference to the Book of Revelation. Even the characters' belief that the US government will come to help them is reasonable; we see that happen throughout history when a civilization falls but some people still remember its greatness & do the best they can under trying circumstances.

If it's about anything, Alas, Babylon is about that kind of survival.

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Blogger MichaelBains said...

no major addictions as ways to "cope" with the stress (in fact, the hero, Randy, gives up his booze entirely), etc.

Man! I read this book in Grade School and your review gave me chills as it brought the memories back. Thank You!

The quoted part stood out for me as I remember thinking about him for several years afterward, as I waited for, sadly often hopedfor Ronnie Reagan to trigger the real McCoy (I gots lots o' "demons" I've had to shake off in my 40 years...) I found much darker fiction from that point onward. Thanks again for making me realize how lucky I was to have read Alas Babylon before those.

6/16/2005 7:42 PM  
Blogger Jay Denari said...

hi, Mbains,

Thanks for dropping in.

I kinda felt like that in the Raegan years, too; sometimes even today, although it never lasts too long. Mostly, I hope we can clean up our act so our great-grandkids still know what birds are and get to visit space, rather than sit around fires talking about myths of the glorious days before civilization collapsed.

6/17/2005 6:48 PM  

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