It is an ordinary December day in 1960, in the sleepy Florida town of Fort Repose. On the river road, Florence Wechek, the local Western Union telegraph manager, awakens and watches the morning news as she makes her breakfast. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States are high—the Russians are launching more Sputnik satellites, and there is a crisis in the Middle East—but as Florence leaves for work, she is more concerned with her neighbor, Randy Bragg, who she suspects of spying on her.
Randy is a descendant of the founders of Fort Repose — a good-natured lawyer who failed as a politician and now makes his living off his family's property, and the occasional bit of legal work. As he drinks his morning coffee, he receives a telegram from his brother, Mark Bragg, an officer in the Air Force. The telegram asks to meet him at the local Air Force base at noon, says that Mark's wife Helen and his two children are flying into Orlando from their home in Omaha that night, and concludes with the cryptic postscript, "Alas, Babylon." Randy is suddenly frightened—"Alas, Babylon" is a private family signal, taken from the fire and brimstone sermons that were given at a local Black church in the Bragg brothers' youth. It means that Mark believes that nuclear war is imminent, and is sending his family to Fort Repose because he believes the town will be safer than Omaha, the site of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).
Randy drives to Orlando, listening to news of international tension on the radio as he drives. Meanwhile, Florence Wechek is having lunch and sharing gossip with her friend Alice Cooksey, the Fort Repose librarian. Near the end of the meal, Florence mentions the telegram that Randy received that morning, with the cryptic phrase "Alas, Babylon" at the end. That afternoon, Alice looks up the reference in a Bible in her library, and finds the quotation in the Book of Revelation, referring to the destruction of a great city — "Alas, alas, that great city Babylon . . . for in hour is thy judgment come."
Arriving at noon, Randy finds the Orlando Air Force base empty. Paul Hart, an ace pilot and a friend, tells him that most the planes are on standby near the Soviet Union, since they will have little warning if war breaks out. Mark arrives, greets his brother, and leads Randy into a back room. He tells him that the Russians are trying to take over the Mediterranean, and that they are willing to start a nuclear war, believing that their advantage in long-range missiles ("the gap," Mark calls it) will win the conflict for them. Then Mark gives Randy a check for five thousand dollars, and tells him to cash it and buy necessities. Mark is going back to Omaha, and SAC, and he begs Randy to take care of his wife and children, Peyton and Ben Franklin. The two brothers say goodbye, and Randy begins the long drive back to Fort Repose.
Alas, Babylon speculates about America in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Because the threat of nuclear war has largely dissipated, Frank's novel can seem dated. However, it provides us with a look at the concerns of Americans in the late 1950s. Pat Frank's decision not to include dates with any of the events he describes is a way of suggesting that these events could happen at any time. Nevertheless, the story is clearly set in the years around 1960, when the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union was at its height. There are references to the crises of 1957 and '58, which included a coup in Iraq, a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, an American invasion of Lebanon, and a Soviet crackdown in Hungary.
Pat Frank, through the character of Mark Bragg, attributes the arrival of war to two factors that were of great concern in the arena of global politics around 1960. The first is the Soviet Union's attempt to gain access to, and eventually dominate, the Mediterannean. By the early '60s, the arena of conflict had shifted to the Caribbean, where the Cuban missile crisis would bring the world as close as it ever came to Pat Frank's nightmare vision. But in the late '50s, Russian aggression in the Mediterranean seemed to pose the greatest danger to world peace. With this Soviet Mediterranean push as the motivating factor, Alas, Babylon uses the idea of a "missile gap" to provide the rationale for why the Soviets would start a nuclear war. According to this idea, which John F. Kennedy used in the 1960 presidential election, the Soviets had achieved an advantage in long-range missiles, which they could use to launch a surprise attack on the United States—an attack much like the one that takes place in the pages of this novel. These political concerns are of secondary importance in Alas, Babylon. They affect the story from time to time, but the story focuses primarily on ordinary people, in an ordinary town. The main character, who is introduced in these opening chapters, is representative of an average person who is suddenly forced to deal with an extraordinary situation.
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