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Free Study Guide: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank - Free BookNotes

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The novel Alas, Babylon mainly revolves around Randy Bragg and his neighborhood and, to a lesser extent, the people of nearby Fort Repose and its lower-class suburb, Pistolville. Initially the novel revolves around Randy but, as the novel proceeds, other characters are added to create a tight-knit community struggling, first, to survive, and, later, to rebuild after the devastation of a nuclear attack. Unlike so many other post-apocalyptic novels, Alas, Babylon is not the story of the survival of an individual, but of the group.

The novel is set in the 1950s in Fort Repose, Florida. Fort Repose is a typical quiet southern town, but the serenity is superficial. There are actually three communities: the prosperous whites of Fort Repose, the black community living on the outskirts of town, and the Minorcans and poor whites living in nearby Pistolville. This distinction sets the attitudes of each community toward the others - the whites and blacks look down on the “white trash” and untrustworthy minorities of Pistolville; the residents of Pistolville consider the whites of Fort Repose to be snobbish; and everyone looks down on the blacks. Their attitudes are typical of the segregated South of the 1950s. This segregation of each community helps to underline the high price society pays for discrimination and segregation, especially during a time when everyone’s help is needed simply to survive.

The novel opens with a general sense of unease over world events. The Soviets have been building their stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the U.S. is trying to catch up. This “weapons gap” puts the U.S. in a dangerously weak position and the Americans are afraid the Soviets will exploit this weakness before they can catch up.

Col. Mark Bragg, Randy’s brother, warns Mark in a telegram that war is imminent. His warning comes in the phrase, “Alas, Babylon” - a phrase from the Bible warning of the destruction of cities in the end-times. Mark sends his wife and children to live with Randy in his hometown, thinking they will be safer there. Their home was in Omaha where Mark is stationed at SAC Headquarters - a primary target (then and now) in the event of a nuclear attack.

When war does finally break out, the large cities in Florida are attacked. Fort Repose is far enough from the major cities that it sustains only minor damage from the concussions. Due to a favorable wind, Fort Repose is spared from radioactive fallout. Randy realizes that life will fundamentally change in the very near future, so he and Helen begin to stock up on necessities. Realizing that medical care will be needed, he finds his friend, Dr. Gunn, at the hotel where he lives and brings him to live in his house.

Randy also knows that the water system will fail once the electrical power is cut off, so he connects his house to the artesian well used by the Henry’s. He soon connects the other houses in the area to the well, creating a small community linked by the water pipes. Within days, the electricity fails as he expected. About this time, Lib McGovern’s mother dies and Randy moves her and her father into his house.

For the next several chapters, we see how ingenuity turns commonplace items into the items needed to survive once it becomes clear that replacements are no longer available. The characters begin to see that what they thought were necessities were actually luxuries, and these luxuries were not likely to be seen again in their lifetime. Greed threatens Pistolville with radiation sickness as some of its residents barter for silverware and jewelry without realizing they are radioactive. Money soon turns back into paper and a barter economy develops. Life, while hard and uncertain, soon develops a certain rhythm.

But a gang of highwaymen who kill a family in their home threatens their hard-won stability. They attack Dr. Gunn, steal his medical equipment, and leave him for dead. Randy realizes that this threatens the very fabric of the rebuilding community and takes action. The highwaymen are hunted down and attacked, and the surviving criminal is taken back to town and publicly hanged as a deterrent to others.

The novel, although a tragedy, ends on a hopeful note: the U.S., although reduced to a third-rate nation, has survived. Fort Repose, although deep in a Contaminated Zone, is in much better shape than many other towns, especially compared to what is left of the major cities. Unlike so many others, they have a chance of survival.

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