Society always finds some lethal “Big Bad” to fear. It might be a meteorite, or a pandemic, or even industrial pollution but every culture identifies some civilization-killing threat and then worries about how to survive it. When I was little, adults were obsessed about “the bomb”. Everything was about A-bombs, and the H-bombs: who had them, who would get them, and how would we survive if they went off. The Bomb was the boogeyman of our culture and creative people used it in their work. One of the earliest post-bomb stories is also one of the nicer ones. Until you look at it up close, it’s hard not to like Alas, Babylon.
Alas, Babylon is the story of how a small Florida community fares in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. They’re close enough to see distant mushroom clouds, but distant enough to avoid lethal exposure to radioactivity. Many people die, from to illness, injury or suicide. The people who survive have to adapt to a much tougher world and, in a few cases, the disaster gives their lives new meaning. The author implies that by stripping some things of their artificial value (for example money reverts to worthless paper) and keeping the intrinsic worth in others (the knowledge in books) allows some obscured values to reappear. Those are fine sentiments if you can overlook some of the other sensibilities in the narrative.
More than anything, Alas Babylon is a novel of the ’50’s (it was published in 1959) and it shows the mindset of that time. The author identifies racism as one of the artificial systems that society never needed. Nevertheless, his black characters remain stock figures (the wise, old, preacher, the heavy-set matriarch, the shiftless male and the good guy who is needlessly killed) who support the protagonist. None of them are really developed into recognizable, detailed individuals.
A pervading air of unconscious sexism also pervades the tale. All of the female characters fill supportive roles, important ones but never roles with decision-making capability. One female character is classified as “all woman, and that’s what she’s made for” as if a female’s function was limited solely by her gender. It’s like 1960’s television: for all of the progressive ideas, the white guys still get the cool jobs, the best lines and the final say; no one disputes their command. These distinctions stands out more with each passing year, reminding the reader that nuclear threats weren’t the only “Big-Bad” in that era.
Even with this, Alas Babylon has a great deal to offer; of all the survivalist tales, it has the most optimistic ending and the realized characters are enjoyable and human. The story moves along at a reasonable pace and it shows insight along with flashes of humor. That could be why other works(like On the Beach ) go in and out of print while Alas, Babylon is still an assigned book in schools. It contains the moral conclusions about nuclear warfare but it suggests a lucky few will survive. Other books in this genre would give some kids nightmares. This one should make them think.