Alas, Babylon
Pat Frank, 1959

After a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, an extended family of survivors in a small Florida town tries to keep on keepin' on.

I recognize that this, like Earth Abides, is not a very good book, but it is still a nifty little page-turner. I stayed up late in order to finish it just because I wanted to see how things turned out.

In my writeup of The Day After, I wrote:

Armageddon was the known endpoint we didn't even bother to deny. The best we could do was imagine that the post-apocalyptic struggle might not be so bad. Maybe plucky bands of survivors would pick up the pieces, stronger for the experience. Maybe, somewhere, in a quiet valley untouched by fallout, the human race could begin anew.

I was pleased to find that The Day After was not like this, that it acknowledged that after a nuclear war there is no hope for anyone but the bugs. But however poor the quote above may have been as a description of The Day After, it was an excellent description of Alas, Babylon.

The main character of Alas, Babylon is a 1959 version of a Neal Stephenson badass nerd. Before the bombs drop, his badassedness is only latent: he's a Korea veteran, has military connections, tweaks the town fuddy-duddies, and has a way with the ladies, but he hasn't done much with his life. He's a rich 32-year-old boy, hanging around the family estate in small-town Florida and confusing people with his weird habits, like birdwatching. But after Miami and Tampa and Jacksonville and Orlando get nuked, and Fort Repose becomes the center of the only "clear zone" in the state, Randy (for that is his name) becomes the leader first of a large household — his dead brother's widow and children, his girlfriend and her father, the black family that does the menial work around the neighborhood, the spinsters next door, the town doctor, and a retired admiral (convenient!) — and then of the whole community. Thanks to the nuclear war, Randy loses his baby fat and becomes a manly man!

And his girlfriend gets to prove that she has a head on her shoulders! And the black family become... well, not equals, since they're still scrubbing floors and growing crops and serving as cannon fodder, but they're a vital part of the household! And the town doctor, freed from the burden of alimony that had kept him from serving the underprivileged, gets to fulfill his dream of ministering to the truly needy! And the admiral gets to command the local fleet! And the kids get to be treated as grown-ups instead of spending their teens chafing under parental authority! And the spinsters get to feel like they're doing something valuable with their lives! And since everyone's doing honest work and walking everywhere, they're all much healthier — more than once people talk about how nuclear war is better than dieting. Yes, thanks to nuclear war, they're all fitter, happier, and more productive! As one character reflects: "It was strange, she thought, pedaling steadily, that it should require a holocaust to make her own life worth living." So, y'know, if you hear the air raid sirens, you're actually kind of lucky. There's a 99.9% chance you'll die, but if you don't, you might achieve self-actualization.

I'm writing as if this sort of thinking were unusual, but really it isn't. I remember my high school economics teacher explaining that recessions and depressions weren't all bad, because they cleared out the "fringy producers" that were making the economy inefficient. The Unabomber's whole deal was that modern man (specifically modern man — he admitted in his manifesto that he didn't get girls) was unfulfilled because survival no longer presented him enough of a challenge. And then, moving from the Unabomber into the realm of truly dubious politics, there's Fox News. No longer able to deny that Bush's Iraq policy has led to a fairly apocalyptic situation in the region, the Foxies now ask, and I quote, "All-out civil war in Iraq: could it be a good thing?" Apocalypse, after all, means uncovering: it's not about the doom and bloodshed, but about finally seeing what the future will look like. The Apocalypse of John in particular is supposed to be a hopeful message to the downtrodden. Massive bloodshed will erase all the old lines and draw new ones!

So who knows, maybe the civil war in Iraq will help some yokels out in al-Basrah province get in shape.

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