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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Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)

With the recent demise of Ray Bradbury, I thought it was an opportune time to read “Fahrenheit 451” again. It’s been a long while since I have read it and, with the world as it is right now, I wanted to remind myself of the story. Despite being written so long ago, it’s still as prescient as ever (unfortunately).

The story of censorship and book burning is still fresh, and I found it really interesting to see protagonist Guy Montag’s evolution and growth as he learns about the world around him and how books have played a role. Meeting neighbor Clarisse is significant as she opens the Pandora’s box of knowledge for him in so many ways, and was the trigger for Montag learning to think critically and to evaluate what was happening around him. It’s sort of an easier-to-swallow Animal Farm in some ways.

One of the notable sections of the book was the realization of Montag of the joy of silence – to appreciate it after years of noise from the electronic “parlor families”. Having lived with constant media, he is entranced by the sounds and smells of nature and how fresh they were in contrast with the recirculated air and anesthesia of his previous life. I think that this could be true of some people today, who encircle themselves with round-the-clock television, computer games and social media. How do people live with such a constant barrage of noise on the senses? I would go batty rather quickly if I didn’t have my Quiet Times (and these are important enough to warrant Capital Letters in my view).

I also found it fascinating to watch him realize that fire could give as well as take. In his former role as a firefighter, his job was to burn things, but it wasn’t until he had left his old life behind, that he realized that fire could be a tool to help as well: through light, through warmth. He had only seen it before in its role of destroying things, not of creating things, and this was really well written that I found it as exciting as much as Montag did.

Another point I noted was the selection of books and authors who the rebels chose to memorize: Bertrand Russell, Thoreau, Byron, Thomas Paine, Machiavelli, Aristophanes, Lincoln… Do you think that if this situation arose again, like-minded people would choose similar authors today? I doubt it, although I could be wrong. I would imagine that a lot of people don’t even know who these people were, let along what they wrote. (I am fuzzy about a few, so I’m not perfect here.) What would you choose if you were in that situation? I will have to think about this some more for my own choices.

Just loved this book. (Plus it was printed in a lovely font and had lovely pages. Just lovely all over.) 🙂

Reading this got me thinking about the world today, and I see reading and the arts *still* being neglected. I have a  very sweet twin niece and nephew in CA, and their school does not have any classes in the arts anymore, so the parents have to pay extra for the kids to attend an after-school program taught by other parents. This strikes me as being rather short-sighted; why are students only being taught what “we” want them to learn and directed by test? (Who is deciding this? Who are the “we”? School boards?) Do JHS and HS students still write essays as part of their exams or is it all Scantron now?

Oh, and I was curious about why the fire-engines in F451 were called “Salamanders” – it turns out that salamanders are part of a group of amphibians who have to live in or very near to water. Thus, the fire engines are mechanical salamanders as they transport and provide water to the blazes. Huh. So now you know.

Notable quotes:

  • “We’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise…”
  • “Stuff your eyes with wonder…”

QUOTE:

“There was a damn silly bird called a phoenix, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up… But every time he burned himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a 1000 years, and as long as we know that and always have it where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation…”

And this re: libraries (from Bradbury’s Coda):

“…There I strolled, lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of libraries…”

Interesting story associated with the writing of this: Bradbury didn’t have a quiet space to write as he had young children at home, so he turned to the local university’s basement library where he could rent a typewriter for a quarter for half an hour… Some people use quarters for a beer drinking game. Bradbury used them to write a classic. Impressive. 🙂

Added later: Saw this piece of newsy goodness about a possible book burning… Just a different kind.