Monday, May 21, 2012

"Alas, Babylon" Revisited

A family is torn apart by war.  The wife, son, and daughter take refuge with a brother-in-law in rural Florida.  The twelve-year-old daughter happens to be looking out a window when a thermonuclear bomb goes off only a few miles away.  As the flash fades, the daughter finds that she is literally blinded, and cries out for her mother.

Grim stuff.  Just as the image of the exploding hydrogen bomb was etched on the daughter’s retinas, the image of the flash that blinded her is etched on my memory. On April 3, 1960, I was watching the TV show Playhouse 90’s retelling of Pat Frank’s apocalyptic science-fiction novel Alas, Babylon.  Rather than just showing a white screen for a few seconds, the producers of this black-and-white drama represented the nuclear flash by switching the entire scene to look like a photographic negative in which black looked white and white looked black.  At the tender age of six, I had never seen such a creepy thing before, and it terrified me.  I had nightmares about atomic attacks off and on for years afterwards.

Alas, Babylon was the most well-known early literary version of a genre with which we have since become perhaps too familiar:  the post-nuclear-holocaust survival story.  Published in 1959 and still in print today, it follows the fates of two brothers, Randolph and Mark Bragg, as full-scale nuclear war comes to the U. S. when the Soviet Union retaliates for an accidental bombing of a Syrian seaport.  Mark, an Air Force colonel, receives early warning that war is coming and sends his wife and children from where he is stationed at a nuclear-missile site in Omaha, Nebraska, to stay with brother Randolph in Fort Repose, a fictional small town in central Florida.  Once hostilities begin, Mark, along with several dozen million other Americans in most large U. S. cities, is vaporized, and Randolph gradually assumes leadership of a small self-sustaining community that forms around an artesian well on his property.  There is the requisite love story, a violent battle with roving highwaymen, and after a year of total isolation from the outside world, the tale ends with a helicopter visit from what is left of the U. S. government.

Pat Frank was a military publicist before he moved to Florida and began writing novels. Alas, Babylon is his most well-known work, and probably one of the most realistic novelistic treatments of how things might actually go after a total nuclear war.  But even in 1959, it embodied some wishful thinking.  Given its almost flat topography, Florida probably has few if any self-pumping artesian wells.  In a real nuclear-war disaster, water would be even scarcer than the novel implies.  If I were to try to rewrite the book today, I would set it on a ranch in far West Texas, which is one of the least likely locations for an enemy with any prudence to toss a nuclear weapon.  And I would use windmill-driven water wells and perhaps a wind generator in the plot to give our survivors some chance at staying in the twentieth century.  It would be no stretch at all to assume they would have plenty of guns and ammunition, because these things are nearly universal in that part of the country.

While it is true that nobody much worries about nuclear war these days, the simple mechanical facts that both we and Russia have enough weapons to do tremendous damage to each other have remained unchanged since 1959, though lots of other things have changed since then.  And you could make the case that today, with Iran striving to make nuclear weapons and Israel moving its itchy finger toward its nuclear trigger in response, that the world (if not the U. S. and Russia) may be approaching a nuclear crisis as serious as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, in which the USSR tried to put nuclear weapons in Cuba and the U. S. blockaded their efforts.

Because nuclear war has fallen off the bottom of the lists of what most people worry about, our preparedness for such a disaster, which was never very good even at the height of the Cold War, is abysmal today.  The only way I can think of in which we are perhaps better off than Pat Frank’s fictional survivors of 1959 is in communications, and this advantage may be largely illusory.  One reason the Internet was designed with distributed resources that are robust against the failure of several nodes is that the military provided the original funding and wanted a system that could survive a nuclear war.  It is by no means clear that this robustness has been preserved to the present day, and I don’t know how many major cities you would have to vaporize before the U. S. Internet failed.  But it might not be that many.  Once the Internet and telecomm systems fail, all you have left is satellites (if the ground stations haven’t been vaporized) or ham radio.

In every other way, I think we are less prepared than in 1959—more vulnerable in terms of power networks, emergency food and water supplies, and an intangible but vital characteristic I would call community spirit:  a recognition that a lot of individual rights and freedoms would have to go out the window for even a small community to survive.  I’m sure there would be exceptions, but I’m afraid lots of people in this country would face such a national emergency with mindless, selfish panic that would both harm themselves and others, and reduce their chances of survival to zero.

I am not an off-the-grid survivalist living as though nuclear war was coming tomorrow.  But I do think it is wise every now and then to at least give a thought to what we might be called upon to do if the worst happened, and even one terrorist nuclear weapon detonated on U. S. soil.  All the same, let’s hope we never find out for real how we would react in such an emergency.

Sources:  Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon was published in 1959 by J. B. Lippincott, and can be found today in paperback editions.  I consulted Wikipedia articles on Pat Frank and Playhouse 90 for this blog.

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