– Alas, Babylon Essay, Research Paper
A Different View of the Bomb
The menace of nuclear war has loomed over generations of Americans. Many different people react in many different ways to the threat of nuclear war, but one of the most common reactions is a passive sort of fear. This is because if nuclear war should begin, we are helpless to stop it or intervene in any way. This is one reason why the literary reactions to nuclear war have generally been quite different from the literary works about conventional types of warfare. The intrinsic realities of nuclear warfare remove most opportunities for bravery, romance, and camaraderie ? typical themes found in literature which affirms conventional war. This is why a completely despairative perspective is far and away the most common among nuclear war literature. It is in this respect that Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, differs from typical nuclear war literature: while Alas, Babylon takes a standpoint of despair towards nuclear war itself, it strongly affirms the human condition and its ability to adapt to and grow as a result of that war. It is in this way that Alas, Babylon spends nearly the whole story looking at post-nuclear war in a strongly affirmative perspective. As such, the author, Pat Frank, presents several easily recognizable themes of affirmation throughout Alas, Babylon. The first is growth, which as presented, is necessary for survival in the dangerous new world created by the war. This growth which Frank illustrates in many of the characters leads to additional themes of affirmation. Courage is another theme in Alas, Babylon that becomes prevalent after the outbreak of war. Lastly, we see characters beginning to make sacrifices, small or large, for the good of others.
Frank’s position in Alas, Babylon is one of affirmation to the human condition; to that end, growth is central major theme in this story. Growth in affirmative literature means a change for the better in a character or characters. A prime of example of this theme can be found in Randy Bragg, the story’s main character. Near the beginning of the story (p. 4-5), before the outbreak of the war, Randy is described as an aimless (though not unintelligent) young bachelor.
“She [Florence Wechek] had watched Randolph graduate from bicycle to jalopy, vanish for a number of years in college and law school, reappear in a convertible, vanish again during the Korean War, and finally come home for good when Judge Bragg and Mrs. Bragg were taken in the same year. Now here was Randy, one of the best known and most eligible young men in Tumucuan County, even if he did run around with Pistolville girls and drink too much, a ? what was it the French called it? ? a voyeur.”
The aimlessness and lack of focus illustrated by the previous quote stand in stark contrast with Randy’s attitude later on, as his world becomes increasingly chaotic. Randy begins to take positions of leadership, guiding his friends and family through the new hardships brought on by nuclear war, as is stated on page 168:
“Randy walked into the house, wondering a bit about himself. Without being conscious of it, he had begun to give orders in the past few days. Even to the Admiral he had given orders. He had assumed leadership in the tiny community bound together by the water pipes leading from the artesian well. Since no one had seemed to resent it, he guessed it had been the proper thing to do. It was like ? well. it wasn’t the same, but it was something like commanding a platoon. When you had the responsibility, you also had the right to command.”
Other characters undergo growth in this story as well. For instance, on page 169, Bill McGovern (another Fort Report citizen) initially reacts to his wife’s death by simply wanting to die:
“Bill McGovern sat in the living room, starting out on the river. He had not bothered to dress or shave. Over his pajamas and robe he had pulled a topcoat. … Bill spoke without turning his head. ‘Hello, Randy. I’m not much of a success, am I, in time of crisis? I can’t feed my daughter, or myself, or even bury my wife. I wish I had enough guts to swim out into the channel and sink.’”
Eventually, however, Bill realizes that his help is needed and that becomes an integral part of the closely knit Fort Repose community. He grows close to the Bragg and Henry families and puts his knowledge of mechanical systems to good use, building a whiskey distiller and devising a way to draw power for a short-wave radio from a car battery. These examples in Randy Bragg and Bill McGovern clearly illustrate a theme of growth which supports Frank’s affirmation of the human condition in Alas, Babylon.
Another clear theme of affirmation of the human condition in Alas, Babylon is courage, which becomes a necessity for survival in postwar life. Ben Franklin, Randy’s young nephew, illustrates courage through his actions on several occasions. Note that Ben Franklin had not been raised in situations where courage was overly necessary; before being sent to Fort Repose by his father, he grew up in a typical suburb in the city of Omaha, where he was never required to show the courage and strength that he would need after such disaster as nuclear winter. For instance, when the Henry family’s chickens are being stolen, Ben Franklin is armed with a gun and assigned the task of guarding the chicken pen. At this point, neither Randy nor anybody else knew what stealing the chickens; for all they knew, it could have even been human, so when Ben Franklin gets set to guard the chicken pen for the night on page 224, he is indeed carrying out a courageous act.
“Randy pointed to the beach alongside the barn. ‘That’s your stand, Ben.’ … ‘Stand?’ Ben Franklin said. ‘That’s what you call it in a deer hunt. When I was your age, my father used to take me hunting and put me on a stand. There are a couple of things I want you to remember, Ben. Everything depends on you ? and you, Caleb ? keeping absolutely still.”
Another example of courage can be found in the actions of Malachai Henry. After Dr. Dan Gunn is robbed and brutally beaten by a band of highwaymen, Randy vows to kill them. He plans to exact his revenge upon these highwaymen by driving around helplessly on the roads under their control in an attempt to create a ruse while Bill McGovern, Malachai, and Sam Hazzard climb out of the back of the truck and ambush the highwaymen. Although Randy had initially planned to drive, putting himself in the position of greatest danger, Malachai volunteers to on page 266:
“Then, at the last second, there was a change. Malachai suggested it. ‘Mister Randy, I want to say something. I don’t think you ought to drive. I think I ought to drive.’ Randy was furious, but he held his voice down. ‘Let’s not get everything screwed up now. Get in, Malachai.’ Malachai made no move. ‘Sir, that uniform. It don’t go with the truck.’ … ‘That ain’t all, sir,’ Malachai said. ‘It’s your face. It’s white. They’re more likely to tackle a black face than a white face. They see my face they say, ‘Huh, here’s something soft and probably with no gun.’ So they relax. Maybe it gives us that extra second, Mister Randy.’ Randy hesitated. He had confidence in Malachai’s driving and in his judgment and courage. But it was the driver who would have to do the talking, if there was any talking, and who would have to keep his hands off the pistol. That would be the hardest thing.”
Ben Franklin and Malachai put their fears aside and did what was necessary to help their friends and family. Their courageous actions clearly illustrate the affirmative theme of courage in Alas, Babylon.
Finally, self-sacrifice is another prevalent theme of affirmation with regard to the human condition in Alas, Babylon. As has been shown, growth and courage are necessitous in the chaotic, unsafe world created by nuclear warfare. Likewise, self-sacrifice becomes a reality, although not a pleasant one, for the citizens of Fort Repose. For instance, on page 271, Malachai makes the greatest sacrifice for the safety of others by giving his life in battle with the highwaymen.
“The man whacked his bat viciously against the door. ‘What you got in there, boy?’ ‘I ain’t got nothin. boss,’ Malachai whined. From the set of his right shoulder Randy knew Malachai had his right hand on the .45, but was acting dumb and talking dumb, which was the way to do. … The gunner said, ‘Drag him out or blow him out. I don’t care which.’ Malachai cringed and cried, ‘Please, boss!’ The fear in his voice was real. The man with the bat put his hand on the door handle. At the instant he turned it, Malachai uncoiled, hurtling himself through the door and on him, pistol clubbed. . . . . He had not even heard the shotguns but when Randy crawled over the front seat and got out, looking for another target, the battle was over. Close behind the truck two figures lay, their arms and legs twisted in death’s awkward signature. Malachai was curled up as if in sleep, his head against the left front tire. It had not lasted more than seven seconds.”
Another important and painful self-sacrifice is made by all of the main characters near the very ending of the story on page 310-11, when a postwar reconnaissance helicopter lands in Fort Repose. A colonel onboard the helicopter offers to evacuate any citizens wishing to leave. Everybody politely declines, for while they would enjoy returning to a less chaotic life, they could not leave their closely knit community.
“[Colonel] Hart was thoughtful for a moment. Then he spoke to Randy: ‘You know, you and all your clear people can come out if you want. … We’re short on choppers but I could bring you out, two or three at a time.’ This was Randy’s town and these were his people and he knew he would not leave them. Yet it was not right to make this decision alone. He looked at Lib without finding it necessary to speak. She knowing what was in his mind, simply smiled and winked. He said, ‘I guess I’ll stay, Paul.’ ‘And the others?’ Randy wished Dan was with them and yet he was confident he could speak for Dan. ‘We have our doctor here, Dan Gunn. If it wasn’t for Dan I don’t think any of us could have made it. He saves this town and I’m sure he wouldn’t want to leave now.’ … ‘Isn’t anybody going?’ Hart asked. Ben Franklin said. ‘Not me!’ Peyton, who had quietly returned to the conference, said, ‘Me either.’”
The theme of sacrifice, including the sacrifices made by Malachai and the other characters on numerous occasions, strongly supports Frank’s perspective of affirmation.
In conclusion, Alas, Babylon contains three prevalent themes that relate to the human conditio. The first is growth; virtually all of the book’s main characters grow significantly as a result of the postwar circumstances thrust upon them. Another important theme in this story is that of courage. Finally, the citizens of Fort Repose voluntarily make sacrifices, small and large, as a result of the nuclear war, demonstrating a theme of sacrifice. Although Frank condemns the human suffering and death that is the inevitable result of nuclear warfare, he uses these three themes to support a standpoint of affirmation, particularly of the human condition, in Alas, Babylon. I generally support the standpoint that Frank has taken in his book. Although I feel that the death and suffering caused by nuclear war is far more significant than any human growth which could occur as a result, I conclude that such growth is a possible, even probable cause of nuclear warfare. History supports this conclusion. Consider previous disasters where men and women have had to work together to overcome strife and disaster ? the Plague, previous World Wars, the Trail of Tears… the list goes on. In each of these examples, people cooperating to overcome great problems had to grow, be courageous and make sacrifices ? often great ones ? for the greater good. As Frank points out by his story, there is no reason why such growth, courage, and noble sacrifice could not arise out of even the most horrible disaster ? the annihilation of civilization by nuclear warfare.