Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank (1959)

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I’m not sure where I found this title, but I was just tootling around thinking about how I’d like to some sci-fi, when I saw it on a shelf in a local thrift shop and picked it up. It’s more speculative fiction than hard sci-fi, I would say, but it’s certainly set in a world that is far different from our own. Written in the late 50’s, it’s an apocalyptic novel which is set in the small town of Fort Repose, in central Florida, and follows the town inhabitants as they try to survive after a nuclear war starts and their area is hit. How would people react in this new world? …

Since it was published in 1959, one needs to cast one’s mind back to those times in history, and remember that this was smack in the middle of the Atomic Age and nuclear devastation was a very real concern for the Americans, especially from the threat of Russia. (Those darned Russkies.) School children were being taught safety drills if a nuclear bomb did explode in their neighborhoods, and although there’s a lot of embrace for modern inventions of the time, it was tempered by fear of “what if…?”

The scene is set in a very traditional small-town values community, filled with “typical” Americans working and living side by side, as one does. A few of the townspeople are retired military and a couple have had some military training from the earlier WWII, but overall, the town is very run-of-the-mill in its demographics. Husbands work, wives stay at home, and kids are white and well-behaved. Residents (and the rest of America) are concerned about nuclear bombs, but it’s more of a concern for other cities and states who have more important resources to worry about. Fort Repose wouldn’t get it, would it?

As you can probably surmise, Fort Repose does get impacted by a nearby explosion and a lot of their community dies, either on that day (now called The Day) or from radiation sickness and other ailments linked to the fallout. Just a small handful of people are left alive, and after their initial shock about the bomb, they need to work on getting food, water, power, housing… And health. Who will die from the after-effects? There are so many unknowns for this community, and it’s pretty Lord of the Flies after a few days.

However, as is perfect of a 1950’s story, a manly man perks up to save the day and the womanly women stand around and do as they’re told and cater to the men. (It’s pretty interesting to read this through a feminist twenty-first century lens. Did people really feel this way? …)

This was a pretty interesting read, especially through a lit-crit lens, so I was glad I found it in the thrift shop the other day.

(The title, just so you know (and I didn’t as I’m a heathen…), is based on a saying from the biblical book of Revelations, which is (according to Wiki): “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that might city! For in one hour is thy judgement to come” (or similar). The phrase “Alas, Babylon” is a code phrase between two now-adult brothers and only used in a big emergency. Obvs, such a day as a nuclear explosion counts…!)

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The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)

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I’ve been familiar with this title since childhood, but hadn’t actually picked it up and read it. Perusing my Century of Books project, the year of 1951 was open and unfilled, so this was the perfect chance to take this title off the shelf. I think I knew the plot on a vague level – man-eating plants, scary, apocalypse etc. – but I do have to admit that it was a much better read than I had thought I was going to get.

This is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the days following an unexplained meteor shower that hits earth one ordinary night. Anyone who watched the meteor shower went blind, but the hero, Bill Masen, avoids that calamity by having had a previous accident to his eyes and being bandaged up that evening. The morning after the shower, Bill’s bandages are taken off, and he is plunged into a new world of mostly blind people and the triffids – clever man-eating plants who can walk around to trap their prey.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was a really good narrative. How does Bill survive when he is one of the few left who can see? How to live in this new world of shrinking resources and aggressive vegetation? Like any post-apocalyptic story, there are bands of people who battle for food and petrol, for clean water and for power, and although the book covers a short period of time, so much happens so quickly that you as the reader are taken along for the ride.

Written in the 50’s, it’s got the cultural references of the time with regard to gender expectations (men should rescue women, women love nice clothes and cook etc.), and it’s so interesting to watch them wrestle with these issues as their new world develops. Overarching everything are the triffids, the experimental plants that have escaped their enclosed yards and are now inching over the earth. They seem to be learning from experience, gathering together for strategy, and communicating with each other. They also have a ten-foot lash that they whip out unexpectedly to kill people.

I’m not usually a sci fi person, but I do tend to like spec fiction like this, and it was a good read overall. I just found out in Wiki that Brian Aldiss, a sci fi historian, called this “a cosy catastrophe” in that it’s a post-war apocalyptic world in which society is destroyed but for a handful of survivors who go on to enjoy a “fairly comfortable existence”. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but now that I know of it, it’s a perfect fit. This is sort of like gentle horror. It keeps your interest but isn’t too scary overall. I loved the read.

Wyndham based this tale on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) (I haven’t read it yet), and was very open about the influence. This Triffid book itself proved to have a long life with multiple versions of radio, movie and TV adaptations so perhaps we’ll track one of them down to watch (or listen to) this Christmas season.

Anyway, this was a surprisingly good read. I enjoyed it.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion – Janet Reitman (2011)

Scientology - ReitmanA fascinating, well documented and balanced (to me) approach about the puzzling world of Scientology. This is not a damning book (although it seems that there is plenty of fodder for that), but more of a neutral outside journalist peering in, collecting information and knowledge for five years, and then collating it together. From my non-Scientology perspective, it was riveting in so many ways. I have difficulty understanding how smart and otherwise rational people will sign a billion-year contract (to include past, current and future lives)  to “serve” this group (aka “the Cause”) and to hand over thousands and thousands of dollars and incredibly personal information that could be used against them when it looks like a big con job to me.

However, this is just me thinking that. Obviously, lots of other people disagree and if they want to spend thousands of dollars learning how to be “clear” (the highest level of spiritual growth as deemed by this church), then who am I to judge? It just seems to be that once one is in this religious group, it’s very hard to get out, and if you do, there are widespread consequences.

Plus having Tom Cruise as a lead spokesman does not really help with credibility that much.

hubbardOriginated by L. Ron Hubbard, a revisionist historian extraordinaire* and early science fiction writer, the history needs to be read to be believed.  It’s an amazing story. Hubbard has been quoted as saying “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start a new religion…”

Hubbard (or “LRH” as he is commonly referred to by Scientologists) claimed to be many things over the years and all embellished: he claimed that he had been an explorer, a naval hero, awarded himself a Ph.D. from a degree mill, claimed to be a nuclear physicist and modeled the group on military lines (allowing himself, naturellement, to be Commodore of the planet).  It’s very cheeky in some ways and somewhat disrespectful of others:  at one point, Hubbard calls himself Meytta, the “reincarnation of Buddha” (p. 102). His successor was not much of an improvement, if you ask me, although is reported to have more dictatorial tendencies.

Reading this was rather like reading a fiction story (and indeed quite a bit of it was developed out of Hubbard’s imagination) so it’s extremely difficult for me to understand people who would buy into this. (And it ain’t cheap.) But I think if you’re a “lost soul”, or perhaps someone who is looking for “answers” or perhaps a second or third generation Scientologist, then it might be easy to get sucked in to the bubble. It’s a very insular world and to question anything means that you run the risk of being “disconnected” by your church, your friends and your family or facing other disciplinary measures.  However, a lot of people say that Scientology has helped them and if it has, good for them. It’s hard to know what the truth is as there is so much inconsistency.

You know, it reminded me of Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven”,a non-fiction book about a splinter Mormon group. In both cases, there was this one human guy who invented a story which he made into a religion, wrote it down and it happened to star him as the lead role, but this belief system (?) seems way more sinister in a way. (This model also seems to be the model for many other (although more benign) belief systems.)

This was a fascinating read and although I am still puzzled by the whole thing, at least I know a bit more than I did. It did spur me to get a book called “Feet of Clay” by Anthony Storr, which according to the publisher blurb is “an eye-opening investigation of charismatic “gurus” from Jesus to Freud to David Koresh…and uncovers the personality traits that link [them].” I am quite sure that I would not make a good cult leader, but it will be interesting to see what traits they may have.  (And no, I am not getting into a debate about what is and is not a cult.)

And here is a link of a Q&A session with author Janet Reitman from the readers of the Washington Post when the book was released. Very informative!

Anyway, this was a good read – fascinating and strange, but very interesting.

  • Just google Hubbard. His story is bizarre as it’s been rewritten so many times by both himself and others. Reitman writes what she has found out about his life story, but it’s so odd that it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. He definitely had an active imagination.