“Alas, Babylon” is a novel by the American writer Pat Frank, published in 1959. The book was one of the first fictional novels to deal with the theme of nuclear war and one of the first survivalist novels of its genre. It is consistently ranked in Amazon.com’s Top 20 Science Fiction Short Stories list even half a century after it was published and made one of the 100 Best Novels in David Pringle’s book.
The novel deals with the idea of Russia bombing the United States during the Cold War in the early 1960’s and the fallout as it impacts a small town called Fort Repose, Florida. The main character, Randy is the descendant of the founder of the town and a former lawyer who takes it upon himself to take control of the town after the nuclear apocalypse when it is quarantined as part of a Containment Zone.
Randy must deal with the deaths of some of his friends and the looting and robbery that begins after society falls. He manages to restore a semblance of order and with the help of the townspeople, gets water up and running and a good store of food. At the end of the novel, men from the U.S. government fly in and offer to take the people away to somewhere more accessible, but they decide to stay in the town together.
The novel’s title derives from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that might city! For in one hour is thy judgment come.”
It is December 1960. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are high, and the Russians are launching more satellites. In a small Florida, town called Fort Repose, a woman named Florence Wechek watches the morning news before leaving for work. Florence is mostly worried about her neighbor, Randy Bragg whom she worries is spying on her. Randy is a former lawyer who failed out of a political career and now makes a living off his family’s property. He is a descent of the original founders of the town.
That morning, Randy gets a telegram from his brother, Mark who is an officer in the Air Force. The telegram says that Mark wants to meet with Randy at noon and that his wife and children are already flying into Orlando from Omaha that night. Mark ends the telegram with the postscript, “Alas, Babylon” which frightens Randy as this is a family signal for danger. This signal means that Mark believes that a nuclear war is imminent. Mark is sending his family to Fort Repose because he believes it will be safer for them there.
That day, Florence has lunch with a friend and mentions the telegram with the cryptic postscript that she didn’t understand. The friend, Alice looks up the quotation “Alas, Babylon” in a Bible and finds that it refers to the destruction of a large city. “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon… for in hour is thy judgment come.”
Randy arrives at the Orlando Air Force Base at noon and finds it empty. Mark arrives and brings his brother into a back room. He says that the Russians are attempting to take control of the Mediterranean and that they are very willing to start a nuclear war. They believe that their long-range missiles will win the fight for them. Mark gives Randy a check for five thousand dollars and tells him to use it for necessities. He then says that he is going back to Omaha and makes Randy promise to take care of his family. Randy promises and the two brothers say goodbye.
Randy travels as quick as possible back to Fort Repose and cashes the check. He then begins stocking up on non-perishable foods and other goods. This draws the attention of his fellow shoppers and Randy has to suppress the urge to tell them what is happening.
He takes his groceries home, warning his neighbor Malachai Henry that a war may be coming. Randy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth McGovern (or “Lib”) comes to visit, and he tells her that his brother’s family is coming to stay with him. The local doctor, Dan Gunn comes in to talk to Lib about her mother’s diabetes and Randy takes the opportunity to warn both of them about the coming nuclear war. It takes a few minutes to convince the both of them that he is serious after which Dan begins making lists of medical supplies that he will need to obtain and Lib leaves to warn her mother and father. Randy attempts to warn Florence as well, but she slams the door in his face as she thinks that he is out spying on her.
The story then shifts to the Mediterranean where a fleet from the United States is being followed by an enemy plane. An American plane chases the enemy aircraft and attempts to fire on it, missing and hitting a harbor in Syria which is one of the allies of the Soviet Union. It then shifts over to Omaha where Helen Bragg is saying goodbye to her husband and taking her children, Peyton and Ben Franklin onto a plane.
In Fort Repose, Randy goes to see Lib’s parents. Neither of them like him and her father, Bill accuses him of making up stories. After leaving the McGovern house, Randy hears a report on the radio that Syria is accusing the US of an unprovoked attack. Mark hears the same reports in the bunker at the Strategic Air Command in Omaha and hopes that his wife will reach Orlando soon. Helen and the children arrive at Orlando in the middle of the night, and Randy goes to pick them up and bring her back to his home.
The United States releases a statement saying that the Syrian attack was an accident. In the bunker, Mark and his commanding officer receive word that four missiles have been fired from inside the Soviet Union. In Fort Repose, Randy, Helen, and the two young children are awakened in the middle of the night by the house shaking. There have been two nuclear explosions, one in Miami and one on the Bunker in Omaha. They rush outside the house to look around and see fighter jets streaking through the sky in the direction of Tampa.
A third nuclear explosion occurs in Tampa and Peyton, who happens to be looking in that direction, is blinded by the blast. Randy rushes to find Dr. Gunn and finds Fort Repose in chaos. The grocery stores and gas stations are filled. Randy finds the doctor in the local hotel, tending to a heart attack victim. Randy tells him what happened to Peyton and Gunn says that she will probably be fine and prescribes some eye drops. On the way back home, Randy passes a group of escaped criminals carrying guns and a car that carries Florence and Alice. Florence goes to the telegraph office to send a message but finds it’s swarming with people trying to do the same and that the lines are down. They receive news that Jacksonville has also been hit by a nuclear bomb.
The narration says that afterward, this day would come to be known simply as “The Day” in Fort Repose. Randy listens to the radio in his house and tries to make sense of what is happening. The new “acting president” of the United States comes on the radio and says that Washington has been destroyed and that the President and Vice President were killed as well as most of the rest of the government. The President is now the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Mrs. Josephine Vanbruuker-Brown. She says that many major cities in the US have been destroyed but that “our reprisal was swift, and, from the reports that have reached this command post, effective.”
That night, Dr. Gunn arrives to look at Peyton’s eyes and is pleased to see that some of her sights has begun to return. Gunn tells Randy that a few people have committed suicide in the town and they discuss whether they are going to be subjected to radiation poisoning. However, the winds have blown the fallout toward the ocean. After he leaves, Randy visits his neighbor a retired Navy Officer, Admiral Hazzard. Hazzard has been monitoring signals on his ham radio and trying to figure out that military situation. As they talk, another missile streaks overhead and hits Orlando. The electricity goes out in Fort Repose as does the water.
Randy goes to work setting up a pipe that runs out to a nearby grove where a pump has been installed so that he and his neighbors can have water again. His farmer neighbors assist him in laying the pipe, and the farmers salt their meat to keep it from spoiling. Randy drives into the town and finds it mostly empty except for some sketchy-looking young men standing around on the streets corners. When he reaches the grocery store, the clerk is carrying a gun. The clerk agrees to sell Randy some ten-pound bags of salt for two hundred dollars.
Next, Randy visits the town’s clinic where he finds Dr. Gunn standing over the body of the local police chief. Dr. Gunn tells him that some drug addicts broke in and stole all of his morphine and shot the place up. Randy easily convinces the doctor to come back to his house with him where he will be safe. That night, Randy and the doctor hear on the radio that many areas surrounding big cities in the United States have been labeled as “Contaminated Zones.” One of these places is Omaha, and this worries Helen, who can only hope that her husband is alright.
The entire state of Florida has been put among the “Contaminated Zones” which tells Randy that his town is now completely isolated. Six days later the local hotel burns down. People in the town being dying from lack of medicine including Lib McGovern’s mother. Randy helps Lib and her father bury the body and invites them to move into his house with him and the others as it will be safer to stay together.
Another four months passes. Supplies run thin, and the survivors become used to being hungry. There is no coffee, no tobacco and no razors available either. Randy is forced to shave with a hunting knife. Henry’s farmer neighbors share food with him, but they have trouble with local animals killing their livestock. Ben Franklin is given a gun and appointed as the guard of the barn and hen house. Dr. Gunn begins treating people for radiation poisoning but this puzzles him as there shouldn’t be enough radiation in the town to cause it.
The local park has become a place for people to barter and trade food and supplies and Randy goes there to try and trade a bottle of Scotch for two pounds of coffee. Randy and the Doctor drive out to the slum of the town to treat a man named Pete Hernandez who is suffering from radiation poisoning. Pete’s sister, Rita tries to flirt with Randy. As she is doing this, Dr. Gunn notices a ring on her finger that has left a dark circle. He tells her to take it and the rest of her jewelry off. The jewelry – and the watch that Pete is wearing has become radioactive as it was picked up by the local representative of the state legislature, Porky Logan, outside Miami as he drove back home on the day of the attack. The doctor and Randy go to Porky’s home and find that he is dead. Dr. Gunn and Randy resolve to bury his body after they make sure that no one else is wearing the jewelry.
Burying Porky proves to be difficult. Randy and Dr. Gunn first have to convince the local funeral director, Bubba Offenhaus, to allow them to use a lead-lined coffin to bury Porky and his jewelry together. However, the coffin requires eight men to carry it since it is so heavy. None of the men in town want to volunteer, and they gather on the green during the funeral, trying to keep their distance. Randy ultimately must draw his gun to force some people to come forward to help.
On the radio, the government announces that any former National Guard or Reserves offices are ordered to take up the government of the Contaminated Zones themselves. As Randy is, himself a Reserve officer, he decides to assume the responsibility for maintaining order in Fort Repose.
Helen begins suffering from some delusions brought on by stress that cause her to think that Randy is his brother, Mark. She tries to kiss him. Lib calms everyone down and reassures them that it is only the stress making Helen hallucinate. That night, Dr. Gunn is late returning home and staggers in several hours later bruised and bleeding. He is too weak to tell them what has happened to him and they feed him and put him to bed. That night, Ben Franklin manages to catch and shoot the dog that has been killing the farmer’s animals.
The next day, Dr. Gunn recounts what happened to him the night before. He says that he was ambushed and a group of criminals took his car and his medical supplies and beat him. Randy decides that his first act as the law enforcement in the town should be to deal with this and his neighbor, the Admiral, set up an ambush on the road to deal with the thugs.
In town, Randy posts official notices declaring martial law and warning that the penalty for robbery or anything more series will be hanging. He convinces Rita to let him borrow the grocery truck that she owns and she agrees to put the word out that it is filled with food and goods for trading in the town. Randy hopes that this will drive the thugs to come after it.
Back at home, Randy tells Lib that he wishes that they were married. Lib points out that he is now the lawmaker in town so if he wants to grant himself a marriage license he can. They decide to get married on the upcoming Easter holiday, that Sunday.
That day, the farmer marries them, and Dr. Gunn is Randy’s best man. After the wedding is over, Randy returns to his plan to ambush the thugs that attacked the doctor. He plans to drive the truck around a prescribed route with Malachai, the Admiral and Bill McGovern carrying guns in the back. Malachai, who is a black man, tells Randy that it would be more believable to have him driving and Randy reluctantly agrees.
After driving around for a while, the truck is herded toward a bridge with a car blocking the far end. Four men approach the truck when Malachai stops it. There is a short gunfight where three of the men are shot, and one is taken, prisoner. However, during the fight, Malachai is hit in the chest and dies before Dr. Gunn can operate on him. The next day the man that was captured is hanged in the park. Randy begins taking volunteers in the town for “Bragg’s Troop,” a makeshift police force.
More time passes and summer arrives. The Admiral’s ham radio finally gives out, and all contact with the world outside the Contaminated Zone is cut off. Instead of anesthetic, Dr. Gunn begins learning hypnosis to help him operate and uses it when Ben Franklin needs his appendix taken out.
Meanwhile, the heat begins to kill the crops, and the salt begins to run out in town. Randy searches through some of the diaries of his ancestors and finds a reference to a pool with a beach of salt in the journal of his ancestor that founded the town. An expedition is sent and returns with sacks of salt.
The following autumn, a small school is set up in town, and Dr. Gunn delivers the first baby conceived after the attacks. That November, Dr. Gunn tells Randy that he wants to marry Helen but that she won’t agree to it until she knows for certain that Mark is dead.
A U.S. government helicopter lands in the town, unloading men who have been sent to conduct radiation surveys. The commander of the men happens to be an old friend of Randy’s, Paul Hart. Paul tells them that Denver is now the capital city of the U.S. Everywhere else is still trying to restore electricity and transportation. Other countries have been helping out by shipping over grain and fuel. He officially tells Helen that her husband, Mark didn’t survive the destruction in Omaha. Paul says that the cities that were hit will mostly likely be radioactive for hundreds of years. He offers to bring them all out of Florida, and they politely refuse, saying that they’d rather stay in Fort Repose.
Randy finally asks who won the war and Paul is shocked that he does not know. He tells him that the U.S. won, saying “We really clobbered them!” finally ending with, “Not that it matters.”
Randy Bragg – the protagonist of the story. Randy is a descendant of the man that founded the town of Fort Repose. At the start of the novel, he is a former lawyer and a failed political candidate who is living on his family’s land, alone. However, after the nuclear bombs begin falling, Randy quickly becomes responsible for not only his brother’s wife and her children but his girlfriend’s family and eventually the entire town.
Randy falls into the role of leader and peacekeeper very quickly and with no reluctance, probably because of his political past. He enjoys helping those around him in the town and does not let the power go to his head. The only sign of real strain comes when Randy must pull his gun on the townspeople to get them to help bury Porky Logan. Beyond this, though, Randy seems to see leading the town as somewhat of a natural duty for him and takes up the role without question and fuss.
Dan Gunn – the local doctor in Fort Repose. Dr. Gunn has recently divorced before the nuclear war begins and is still recovering emotionally from this. However, he becomes one of the town’s heroes very quickly after it is quarantined and throws himself into his work with no qualms. Dr. Gunn cares for all of the sick people in the town, including those with radiation poisoning, in much the same way Randy takes over the town – without question. He does his duty as a doctor well and manages to do it often without the help of any medicine or anesthetic. He and Randy grow closer after the war begins and become best friends. He also grows closer with Helen and eventually marries her by the end of the book.
Elizabeth McGovern – Randy’s girlfriend. “Lib” as she’s known throughout the story is an intelligent, resourceful woman who does her best to help out during the town’s troubles. At the beginning of the novel she lives with her parents but she and her father, Bill move in with Randy in his house after her mother dies from her Diabetes going untreated for too long. Lib essentially proposes to Randy as she tells him that he is allowed to give himself a marriage licensee if he wishes since he is the leader of the town. After they marry, she becomes Randy’s wife and the first lady of the town.
Helen Bragg – Randy’s sister-in-law. Helen was married to Randy’s brother, Mark before the war began. Although he dies during one of the first nuclear strikes, she does not know this and continues to hold out hope that he survived. Helen has two children, Ben Franklin and Peyton and moves with them to Fort Repose after her husband instructs her to stay with his brother. Helen suffers more mental strain than anyone else in the story and has at least one psychotic break, where he mistakes Randy for Mark and tries to kiss him. However, by the end of the story, she has recovered, and it is revealed that she and Dr. Gunn have been growing closer. When she discovers her husband’s death, she agrees to marry Dr. Gunn.
Pat Frank Biography
Pat Frank was born Harry Hart Frank on May 5th, 1908 in Chicago, Illinois. He worked as a journalist for newspapers, magazines, and government agencies before the 1940’s and served with the Office of War Information during World War II. He also acted as a war correspondent during the Korean War.
Frank began writing novels in the 1940’s and drew upon this experience with the military and government for them. As with many people that lived during his time, Frank had a lot of concern about impending nuclear war and radiation poisoning.
Frank’s first published work was “Mr. Adam” in 1946 which related the story of an accident at a nuclear power plant that left all of the man on earth sterile except for one. The novel was satirical. Ten years later, Frank published two more novels, “Hold Back the Night” and “Forbidden Area,” the latter being another book about a nuclear war happening some time in the future.
Frank’s most well-known book, “Alas, Babylon” was published three years later in 1959. The novel was written while Frank was living in a Tangerine, Florida and the town of Fort Repose depicted in the novel was based on the real town of Mount Dora, Florida, nearby. The novel was conceived of by Frank while he was working on a magazine assignment at the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. While there, he began wondering how America would react after a nuclear war. Thus, the novel’s plot was born.
In 1962, Frank also published a non-fiction book called “How to Survive the H Bomb and Why.” Frank’s work has seen many adaptations, including the 1956 feature film for “Hold Back the Night” and a 1964 comedy based on his short story, “The Girl Who Almost Got Away.”
In 1961, Frank was the recipient of the American Heritage Foundation Award, and later he acted as an adviser for NASA. Frank died at the age of 56 on October 12th, 1964 of acute pancreatitis. He is now buried in Jacksonville, Florida where he passed away.