Alas, Babylon. Alas indeed. I’ll cut to the chase: I did not like this book. I spent most of it groaning, sighing, and underlining the stereotypes that flooded its pages. I would recommend that you remove it from your to-read list immediately. Classic schmassic.
I had been hoping for a good post-apocalyptic (PA) story of the nuclear bent. First disappointment: the shit doesn’t hit the fan until page 73 (of 238 pages). That was too late. Instead of getting right into the End of America As We Know It, Frank wastes a lot of time explaining why it happened. (Surprise! The Cold War gets hot.) This information, particularly for a reader who knows how the Cold War turned out on this side of the page, was unnecessary and unnecessarily boring. I would have happily accepted that Russia had nuked the United States without 70 pages of explanations. Strike one.
In the forward to my copy of the book, Frank explains that he was inspired to write Alas by a friend who wanted to know what life might look like if the Russians nuked the United States. On this front you could call the book successful, but this goal seems to have kept him from telling a compelling story (or any story, really—individual things happen, but it felt cursory). In his attempt to show the reader what nuclear war would mean for our daily lives, Frank sacrifices the nuance that might have made this story worth reading for a more general postcard big picture. There is some action, but very little that ties it all together into a satisfying arc. Strike two.
Then there are the women. Sure, Alas was written in 1959, so you might expect it to show women in the roles they were largely being pressured into during that time—sexist as those expectations might have been. There is nothing wrong with an accurate portrayal of time and place. There is nothing wrong with showing a sexist world—we live in one. BUT: Any accurate portrayal of a time and place like the 1950s must include realistic and varied character reactions to the mores of the time. If you, the author, decide to show “sympathetic” characters being sexist without showing how the consequences of that reverberate in the world, to take one example, then you have failed at accurately portraying your time and you are perpetuating myths that play an active part in limiting the lives of half of the population. You can’t play the “it is a book of its time” card (which, frankly, is a total bullshit copout, but that is an argument for another day) because it is not a book of its time. It is a book of the very small perspective of one individual. An individual who has failed to notice what, in the case of sexism and its consequences, over half of the population is feeling and experiencing during “its time.” I expect more insight from writers. I expect them to be able to transcend their time (at least to a point), to be capable of pulling back the curtain, to notice things that other people don’t, and to think critically about the world.
Well. The first 200 pages of Alas contain nothing but cardboard cutouts—both of women and of men, but most noticeably of women. Get out your barf bags, I’m going to show you some examples.
One of the older females characters is a gossip in order to “relieve the tedium of spinsterhood.” Because without a man, only boredom awaits the unmarried female. This fact is important enough to bear mentioning several times.
When the omniscient narrator’s voice steps in, we hear about what “the more thoughtful wives” bought during the post-disaster rush on the stores. Not what people buy. What wives buy. Because even after the apocalypse the women are supposed to do all the shopping. Right. The story itself doesn’t even support this strange supposition—the only person we accompany on a shopping trip is a man. Hmm.
One of the main character’s (Randy) ex-girlfriends, who is described as a manipulative, gold-digging slut who has been with just about every guy in town and has (gasp) “an annulled high school marriage and an abortion behind her” (don’t worry, we are told she “no longer made such foolish errors,” not that abortions are going to be easy to get with only one doctor left in the immediate world) is greedy and gets hers when that greed lands her finger-deep in radiation sickness. Despite this she is the most dynamic of Alas’ characters, and she does decide to help the “heroes” solve a difficult problem toward the end of the book.
Randy’s current girlfriend? His idea of a compliment is to tell her that she is “a beautiful possession.” Because love equals ownership and owning pretty things is really important when the world goes to hell.
And don’t tell me that all this sexism is just a consequence of the story being told from Randy’s—who knows jack shit about women as human beings—perspective. Alas changes perspective at least four times (I might have missed a few changes, they were rather sporadic). There is room in the structure for a lot of different takes on all of these issues.
While we’re discussing damaging stereotypes, let’s talk about how real men don’t cry. When the main character takes a minute to mourn, he makes a mistake that almost kills him and decides he “would not (cry), ever again.” But women in the world of Alas? They cry all the fucking time. The woman who becomes president post-disaster gets hysterical on her first national radio broadcast (can you think of one fictional male leader you have ever seen portrayed crying in public when he was supposed to be PRing power and strength?), but a little boy doesn’t cry, ever—not when the nukes hit, not when he knows his father must be dead, not when he has an emotional first hunting experience. Real men don’t cry, little boys don’t cry, and real women cry all the time. They might not be good for much else. You certainly can’t trust ’em with guns. Shi-iiit. The lack of tears is also part of something that irritates me in the majority of PA books: why isn’t anyone suffering from PTSD?
But let’s return to the woman who has become president. Most of the (male) government were in Washington when the Russians started bombing. It is all very Battlestar Galactica: “Mrs. Vabruuker-Brown was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the President’s Cabinet, or had been…” Not only does she break down during her radio talk—a breech in the professionalism expected from the leader of a nation that would be unimaginable in a male character—but other characters repeatedly cite her femaleness as evidence of how badly the United States is doing. Again, you could say this is the sexism of the time, of the characters. And then I could say that an author who can’t even imagine another reaction isn’t an author I care to spend much time reading.
Then there are the inaccuracies in the book’s depiction of birth and breast feeding. Frank went with the assumptions of the day and ran with them—his lack of research is glaring. To cite just one example, contrary to what the book’s good-old-boy doctor suggests, you can’t feed babies formula until it runs out and then start breast feeding. That is not how breast feeding works. Some mothers might be able to start producing milk again because the human body is capable of some magical shit. But by and large their milk would simply have dried out by the time the formula did, leaving the babies to starve. It has happened before. Nestle has proven that areas with few resources do not benefit from this line of thinking.
Incongruently, in the last 30 pages of Alas we suddenly hear from two of the female characters (the story’s main love interest and a little girl) about how shitty it feels to be forced out of the action because of your gender. I was glad Frank had included their perspectives at all, but it felt like an afterthought only a few steps short of the turn around that occurs in Z for Zachariah (which, by the way, was caused by the fact that after the author died his wife and daughter finished writing the book and turned his sexist bullshit on its head).
At the same time, I wonder why Frank thinks that after a disaster that has everyone working their fingers off just to survive, anyone would be concerned about keeping women from doing any work. I think (hope, wish) a more realistic look at apocalypse would see how an event like that might shake up ingrained sexism and gender roles because isn’t survival a lot more important than making sure that only the people with penises hold the guns? For an author attempting to show the future, here Frank’s vision in Alas feels particularly short-sighted.
And this: “The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that he had learned this: they needed a man around.” Fuck you, Randy. I know you are meant to be the book’s sympathetic hero character, but I do not find you sympathetic at all.
To his credit, Frank does slightly better with race issues. But only slightly. (Very very slightly. Very very very.) The majority of Alas’ black characters are also made of cardboard: The Preacher (who has no other name until page 202 when Randy realizes he is hearing the man’s real name for the first time), the stout older cleaning women who sings spirituals while washing the dishes, the shiftless drunk—we never get to know much more about any of them. But whereas Alas’ main character Randy—whose view of the world is the one we are meant to see as right and good though perhaps imperfect—can’t imagine gender equality, he isn’t particularly racist. When another character makes a racist comment (which happens quite frequently, folks don’t even want to invite the black neighbors to a barbeque they are going to have to use the meat about to spoil for lack of a freezer), he shrugs it off or calls them out, and the story makes it very clear that without the knowledge of the black characters (who know how to do everything from lay pipe to making whiskey—another stereotype?) all the white characters would be having a much harder time. So there’s that.
But the book’s black characters are also suspiciously obedient to their white neighbors (yeah right, Frank). They had a positive (employment) relationship with some of their white neighbors before the disaster, but I find it hard to believe that they would hop to working for the same neighbors (this time without pay of any kind!) in the way Frank depicts. Maybe they are just good, humane people—that is certainly implied—and maybe Frank just couldn’t imagine good black southern folks might not immediately elect their white neighbor and (former) employer the leader of the pack once the entire social order that has worked to repress them, segregate them, and generally fuck up their lives for the last 200 years. Or offer themselves up as bait/martyrs for their white neighbors when they declare war on the local highwaymen. Frank depicts the black characters as being extremely knowledgeable, but then gives them none of the power that knowledge like theirs should give them after a world-changing event. Again, short-sighted. And guess which characters die? Yup, the black ones.
When it comes down to it, dependance on stereotypes in general is the book’s biggest flaw—not just in his characters—and end-of-the-world tropes show up every couple of pages. We’ve got the character who has to slap a hysterical character to get him to snap out of it. The postman who won’t give up come hell or nuclear fall out. The ex-military man who takes charge of the dirty, shiftless, chaotic town folk. The young boy who is forced to “become the man of the family” in his father’s absence. It is conceivable that some of these tropes weren’t as prevalent in 1959—I don’t have the time this morning to do the research of which trope appeared when—and Frank’s book was the very first in a long line of PA nuclear disaster stories. But whether or not Alas use tropes or started them, their presence make the book something that readers today might not being able to stomach. I certainly couldn’t.
Where are the lawless?
As usual, none of the book’s characters can imagine the world without government and immediately begin setting up new hierarchies. The world has ended, and they are all still obsessing over legality. The bad guys are still the drug addicts and the people who are attempting to do things outside of the (now pretty fucking irrelevant) law. Whether or not this is realistic—and who can say really?—I find it disappointing in every single PA book in which it appears. Where are the imaginative lawless who can imagine using a very awful situation to build something more functional than the world left behind? Where are the anarchists? Where are the folks who can imagine creating something new and beautiful on the clean slate they’ve had smashed over their heads?
The best part…
Ultimately, my favorite part of the book was the end. Because it was finally over (thank pod) and because it finally was saying something interesting. The characters we have been following don’t know who won the war, and when they finally meet someone who can tell them, the answer is this:
“’We won it. We really clobbered ’em!’ Hart’s eyes lowered and his arms drooped. He said, ‘Not that it matters.’
The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.”
Survival Tips of Alas, Babylon
You can eat armadillo. It is apparently delicious.
Metal holds radiation. Leave it alone after the bomb.
Not having salt in your diet can seriously fuck you up, though exactly how was never mentioned.
Where I got it: Borrowed, epub