Thanks for the week off, everyone. We really enjoyed spending time with friends in a remote location. And now, back to business as usual. We appreciate Paul Garrett sending a review for this week’s Monday book.
Young Greta Thunberg was catapulted onto the world stage a few weeks ago when she addressed the United Nations General Assembly about the “existential threat” of climate change. Those of us who lived through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties remember another “existential threat,” that seemed at the time to be more ominous and unquestionable.
Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon (Harpers, 1959) was one of the first of many books, like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Fate of the Earth, by Johnathon Schell that attempted to come to grips with the looming threat of nuclear war.
A writer friend mentioned this book to me a few months back when a particularly prickly situation with Iran was playing out in the Persian Gulf, a place with which I became intimately familiar back in 1988. Apparently, the book was required reading in some high schools back in the day, while I was forced to read A Separate Peace and The Red Badge of Courage, two other anti-war novels, which begs the question; were all English Teachers pacifists back then?
Written in the heat of the cold war (pardon the pun) a few years before the Cuban missile crisis, the premise is that an errant missile fired by an American pilot devastates a Soviet base in Iran, launching the world into an atomic conflagration. Virtually all the major American cities are devastated, leaving a small backwater town in North Central Florida relatively unscathed. As the novel unfolds, the residents are forced to deal with the after-effects of the calamity, when they are cut off from what is left of the world.
Frank’s novel was written in an era when people were expected to be relatively well-behaved. Most of the looting in the book takes place off the page and the lone set of thugs who threaten our heroes are dealt with swiftly, despite some collateral damage. This was before things like hurricane Katrina, the Mad Max franchise, and Cormac McCarthy’s desolate novel The Road demonstrated what the end of civilization could really mean.
There are some quaint passages, as when a woman’s abortion is referred to as “a mistake she will never make again.”
Alas, Babylon avoids the preachiness of other anti-nuclear books of the age, perhaps because in the 1950’s, when school children regularly practiced hiding under their desks, home fallout shelters dotted the landscape, and Civil Defense air raid drills were carried out on a monthly basis, nuclear war was a foregone conclusion.
Pat Frank died in 1964, a good twenty-five years before the Soviet Union collapsed after rotting from the inside, and the threat of nuclear war was put on the back burner. One can’t help but wonder what he would have thought.
Nowadays worries over the horror of nuclear war are all but forgotten along with many other bugaboos and jeremiads about things that could really happen and are just around the corner and threaten life as we know it. It seems the end is always near. Nor is chronophobia a recent phenomenon, as pointed out in what is reported to be an old Scottish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.”
While we know that over 250,000 people were incinerated or left to die a slow excruciating death at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is little direct evidence so far that anyone has been killed by climate change.
It seems that whether it is nuclear war, acid rain, the ozone hole, the coming ice age, global warming, creeping socialism, or the threat of a second term for Donald Trump, powerful people are always trying to scare us into doing their bidding.
As it turned out, it wasn’t nuclear annihilation that threatened to bring us to our knees but a sneak attack from an unexpected quarter, or as Toby Keith famously sang; “A mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back,” on September 11th, 2001. So, while it may be true as the aphorism says, “Ninety percent of the things you worry about never happen,” we might add, “…but beware of those things you never see coming.”