On The Day, as it will come to be known in the small Florida community of Fort Repose, the worst Cold War fears of adults and schoolchildren, civilians and military and politicians, alike will be realized. As tensions rise in the Middle East, one mistake--possibly human error, possibly equipment failure--will set into motion the end of the world as everybody knows it.
Global thermonuclear war.
Duck and cover isn't going to help anybody on this day.
Alas, Babylon begins the day before The Day, as Randy Bragg learns from his brother Mark, an Air Force colonel, that something is going down, and soon. Mark tells Randy he is sending his wife and children to him to hunker down on the family estate, and advises Randy to stock up on essentials and to share the information with anybody he thinks he can trust. The rest of the book, told in a spare, muscular style, follows Randy Bragg and the citizens of Fort Repose as they attempt to rebuild their world, learning as they go and making lots of mistakes.
Some of the nastier aspects of what would happen were the underpinnings of society to come crashing down all at once are minimized--lack of medical supplies, outbreaks of serious disease, and general lawlessness are subjects each covered in just one or two scenes; still, each of the scenes is chillingly rendered and serves perfectly well as a jumping off point for the reader's imagination to extrapolate further. What is more interesting is the rebuilding of a civil society by civilized people.
While not as gruesome as its many descendants--among them The Stand, Swan Song, and, most recently, The Passage--Alas, Babylon still packs a powerful punch. And despite what has been derided by some as its naive optimism, Pat Frank's portrayal of the indomitability of the human spirit in Alas, Babylon (published in 1959, just two years after the launch of the first Sputnik and at the height of the Cold War)--is moving and inspiring.