Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447
Alas, Babylon is one of many post-catastrophe novels written in the era of the Cold War. Like the more highly regarded A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller, Jr., it assumes a return to barbarism after such a catastrophe. Whereas Miller’s novel covers some eighteen hundred years after...
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- Critical Essays
Alas, Babylon is one of many post-catastrophe novels written in the era of the Cold War. Like the more highly regarded A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller, Jr., it assumes a return to barbarism after such a catastrophe. Whereas Miller’s novel covers some eighteen hundred years after the holocaust, Pat Frank’s novel concerns only the first year and shows the process by which such decadence comes to be. Frank’s novel is more optimistic than Miller’s, ending with the re-establishment of schools, an increase in reading, the return to a more purposeful existence, and the hope that the best people will survive and retain their civility.
One of Frank’s last novels, written at a time when America feared and prepared for atomic war, Alas, Babylon can be called science fiction only in the sense that the holocaust does occur. At the beginning, Frank makes the setting seem familiar. With careful attention to place, he creates a small river town in Florida, modeled after Mandarin, where his mother lived. As the town becomes strange to Randy, it becomes strange to the reader because of the lack of necessary services, the destruction of such symbols as money and ceremonies, and lack of communication with the outside world. For several months, the characters do not know whether the war is still going on or which side might have won, and they do not know if there is a national government in control. The uncertainty of authority and the necessary barbarism of life caused by the lack of accustomed services unleashes the worst aspects of human nature.
The narrative voice is omniscient, with events seen through the consciousness of several characters. The novel begins with the thoughts of Florence Wechek, Randy’s neighbor. This allows Frank to present a humorous view of Randy before putting the reader into Randy’s consciousness. Randy appears at first to be rather purposeless, but the good stock he comes from, his military service, and his intelligence and good character foreshadow his heroic actions.
The novel is dated by its racist and sexist assumptions. The author treats the black characters with condescension, presenting them stereotypically as, for example, a lazy, drunken loafer; an overweight domestic worker; and an industrious manual laborer. Women, too, are presented in shallow terms. Helen momentarily goes mad because of repressed sexual desires, and when the women are left alone, chaos ensues. Randy concludes that women need men around. Despite expression of these dated attitudes, Alas, Babylon is well crafted and is instructive as a moral tale. The community members’ interdependency shows that civilization is based on ethical behavior rather than on technology and material goods.