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

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All quotations are from Alas, Babylon, ©1959, by Pat Frank, published by Bantam Books, 5th printing (1979).

1) “Far to the east [Ensign Cobb] picked out Mount Carmel, and a river, and beyond were the hills of Megiddo, also called Armageddon.” (Chapter 4, p. 70).

The title of the book, Alas, Babylon, comes from The Revelation to St. John in the Bible. In The Revelation, the final battle is said to begin at Armageddon. Armageddon is Hebrew for “hills of Megiddo.”

2) “You see, all their lives, ever since they’ve known anything, they’ve lived under the shadow of war - atomic war. For them the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it.” (Helen Bragg to Randy Bragg, Chapter 4, p. 84).

This is one of the most frightening quotes of the novel. It is, unfortunately, true for those who grew up during the Cold War. We were taught that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was all but inevitable, and we were taught how to respond (Civil Defense fallout shelters in the basements of large buildings and the famous “Duck and Cover” films). For those of us who grew up in the Cold War, the abnormal (the ever-present threat of nuclear war and its aftermath) was normal. The Bragg children, Ben and Peyton, for whom the “abnormal” had become the “normal,” seem to have less trouble accepting and adapting to the new realities of life than did the adults.

3) “...Edgar brought out his wallet and said, ‘How much?’ Jerry laughed and raised his hands in a gesture of repugnance. ‘Keep it! I don’t want money. What the hell’s it good for? You can’t drive it and you can’t eat it and it won’t even fix a flat.’ “ (Jerry Kling (gas station owner) to Edgar Quisenberry, Chapter 5, p. 120).

Edgar, the local banker, placed his trust in the stability and integrity of the U.S. financial system all his life. For him, there was nothing more solid or reliable than cash. In his world, everyone dreamed of cash - it could, and would, buy you anything, including respect. Now, with the collapse of the banking system and the U.S. dollar, the economy is starting to revert to an “in-kind” barter economy in which cash, and the financial system that backs the dollar, is meaningless. Edgar is one of the last people in Fort Repose to realize this and commits suicide shortly afterward.

4) “...The struggle was not against a human enemy, or for victory. The struggle, for those who survived "The Day", was to survive the next.” (Chapter 6, p. 123).

No one, at least in the novel’s setting in Florida, ever saw an enemy soldier. There were no invaders or foreign troops to fight. The military fight was in the hands of the U.S. military. For the people of Fort Repose, the fight was not against an invader with a sickle-and-hammer insignia on his sleeve, but simply to survive. This was, by far, the hardest fight and one whose outcome could not be predicted. This is one of the major themes of the novel: survival.

5) “Some nations and some people melt in the heat of crisis and come apart like fat in the pan. Others meet the challenges and harden. I think you’re going to harden.” (Dan Gunn to Randy Bragg, Chapter 6, p. 132).

Dr. Gunn has just checked on Peyton’s eyes after the initial nuclear attacks. He and Randy are talking, and Randy refuses a drink. For Dan, this is encouraging - he has already seen several men drink themselves senseless this day. Dan has always understood that Randy had the spark of leadership in him, although Randy disagreed. Now, in the heat of crisis, Randy, unlike many of the other men in town, is not falling apart - he is, indeed, toughening. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

6) “ ‘How much?’ Randy asked. Beck shook his head. ‘Nothing. That safe is full up to the top with money. That’s all I’ve got left - money. Ain’t that funny - nothing but money.’ “ (Mr. Beck (hardware store owner) to Randy Bragg, Chapter 7, p. 156).

This is another indication of the attitude of the people towards money. Before "The Day", Mr. Beck and all other shopkeepers could only dream of having a safe full of money. Now, its only use will be toilet paper. One important thing that the people will come to realize is that money is, in reality, of no value. It has value only because the government that issues it declares it to have a certain value (economists refer to this as “fiat money”). What will be important in "The Day"s to come is knowledge and skills - beekeeping, soap making, sewing skills, knowledge of machinery, etc.

7) “The place we should have built up stockpiles was out in the country, like Timucuan County. Stockpiles weren’t going to be of much use in the cities because after "The Day" there weren’t going to be any cities left. But where were the stockpiles? In the cities, of course. It was easier.” (Dan Gunn to Randy Bragg, Chapter 7, p. 165).

Dr. Gunn is bemoaning the general shortsightedness of government leaders. Storing stockpiles of drugs and medical equipment in the cities was certainly easier and cheaper - both important qualities to politicians who fail to properly plan for a crisis. Unfortunately, this is what happened during the Cold War - radiation drugs, civil defense equipment, etc. was stored in the basements of large buildings in the cities - cities that would be incinerated if nuclear war actually came.

8) “Survival of the fittest... The strong survive. The frail die. The exotic fish die because the aquarium isn’t heated. The common guppy lives. ... That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.” (Randy Bragg to Lib
McGovern, Chapter 7, p. 175).

Classical Darwinism teaches that the fittest of the species survives while the weaker die. Species that are so adapted to their environment that they are “specialized” are the first to die off when the environment changes and the special ecological niche they occupy disappears. In Florence’s aquarium, the angel fish and other exotic fish requiring a special environment are the first to die when there is no longer electricity to power the heaters and air pumps. The common guppy and the drab catfish, however, are not specialized and, so, survive. Randy is telling Lib that those people who are specialized (like Edgar Quisenberry, the banker) will not survive when the special niche they occupy is gone. The nonspecialists, those who can adapt, have a chance to survive. Later, Randy tells Lib that they need to be catfish.

9) “The defective bee, unable to cope with its environment, is rejected by nature before birth. I think this will be true of man. ... Nature is just, even merciful. By natural selection, nature will attempt to undo what man has done.” (Dan Gunn to Randy Bragg, Chapter 9, p. 215).

It is often said that nature is cruel. Dan says that nature is not cruel; instead, it favors the strong and healthy. Dan and Randy are concerned about the possibility of a rash of stillbirths and children born with birth defects after "The Day". Dan agrees that stillbirths will not be unusual for a while, but things will return to normal. Nature is not cruelly killing off the unborn, it is actually doing them a favor. Man created the situation where birth defects and stillbirths would be a problem; nature will try to clean up the mess and ensure the survival of the species.

10) “We were born with Silver [sic] spoons in our mouths and electric dishwashers to keep them sanitary and clean. We relaxed, didn’t we? What will happen to us, Admiral?” (Lib McGovern to Sam Hazzard, Chapter 9, p. 230).

Sam and Lib have just heard reports on the shortwave of reports of smallpox outbreaks in Europe and North America. Lib thinks this is medieval. She then realizes that, with the advancement of science and technology, we became lazy and relaxed our guard, and now the ancient evils are returning. Now that the science and technology that kept the plagues and other old curses at bay are gone, will they return? If so, what will we do about it? If common childhood vaccines available today suddenly disappeared permanently from the shelves, how will we as a nation respond? Too few doctors have been trained to deal with diseases such as malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, measles, and polio - all common in the U.S. relatively recently - because those diseases do not exist in any numbers (if at all) in modern America. What do we do if they return? What kind of future would we face?

11) “...When he saw the knives and the pliers and the hair clips steaming [Dr. Gunn] realized they were not really so ridiculous. ...They had not and probably could not have saved Malachi. They might save someone else. A century ago the tools had been no better and the knowledge infinitely less. Out of death, life; an immutable truth.” (Chapter 11, p. 277).

Dr. Gunn has just tried to save Malachi after the attack on the highwaymen, but he has no equipment. Everyone is hunting for anything useful - steak knives, hairpins, aquarium tubing, anything that could be of use. Dan realizes that doctors in the last century had equipment that was no better than his collection of odds and ends, yet they helped many sick and injured. Although his equipment is no better than 19th century medical tools, he has the advantage of medical knowledge that was unknown then. With that knowledge, he could make do. Malachi’s death would not be in vain - although the equipment was gone, Dan was assembling a collection of items that, with his knowledge and skill, may yet save a life another day.

12) “ ‘Some of our scientists think it will take a thousand years to restore a saturated [Contaminated Zone], like Florida or New Jersey, to anything close to normal.’ “ (Paul Hart to Randy Bragg, Chapter 13, p. 309).

Actually, it would probably take longer than a thousand years to fully restore a contaminated zone. It does, however, make an interesting backdrop to the last sentence in the novel: “... Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.” (Chapter 13, p. 312).

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