Alas, Babylon‘s storyline is what most people think of when they think of nuclear holocaust stories even if they’ve never heard of it before. One of the first and most entertaining novels about mankind’s nuclear chickens coming home to roost, it is fast-paced and suspenseful due to plenty of action and clever exploitation of the back-of-your-mind dread that accompanied the Cold War and which lingered into the years of detente between America and the Soviet Union.
After a string of military mishaps and misinterpretations on both sides, the USSR–already intent on executing a first-strike plan–decides to launch against the United States and its allies. Randy Bragg, an attorney and Korean War veteran in his early thirties, is living a comfortable life as something of a “player” in the fictional central Florida town of Fort Repose when he receives a message from his older brother, Mark, a colonel in the Strategic Air Command in the midwest, asking Randy to meet him at a local Air Force Base. Mark knows war is likely coming and tells Randy Mark’s wife and children will be flying in to Orlando, Florida for Randy to pick-up and look after. Randy collects Mark’s family and stockpiles supplies. The missiles fly soon after, with Randy rising as a leader in his community as they attempt to survive and deal with the expected bands of marauders.
Needless to say, life never gets back to normal, and Randy ends up leading the others as they figure out the “new normal.”
This is a disturbing (especially for the time) and difficult book to put down. It is suspenseful, well-paced, and vivid with plenty of action, driving home the realities of a nuclear aftermath in a way that is both dramatic and convincing as if to say, This is horrible and should be avoided, but here’s how to prepare for it and what to expect.
Either way, it’s more fun than most movies and television shows on the subject, and a quick read.
People from the 1980s who remember the television movie, The Day After, will recognize the story. The Day After is essentially a blown-out melodrama with a similar storyline set in the mid-1980s. A much better, updated telling of the same story, more or less, is William Fortschen’s One Second After published in 2009. One Second After takes place in a small college town in North Carolina and is a vivid portrayal of life in America after several strategic EMPs (Electro-Magnetic Pulses) are set off of the United States.
Finally, this space could have easily been filled by something about Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick which was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in October, 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and focuses on the decisions by world leaders and their behind-the-headlines communications, compromises, and concessions during such events.
Indeed, Fail-Safe and Alas, Babylon read in succession provide a comprehensive view of the realities and possibilities that tormented many during the Cold War.