Alas Babylon: Essay Q&A

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1. Describe the character of Randy. How does he change after the attacks? Given his character and experience, does he seem qualified to act as leader of Fort Repose? What does he do to restore order to the town?

At the outset of the novel, Randy is an amiable but lazy playboy bachelor. Trained as a lawyer, he uses his expertise only occasionally, as he earns a comfortable living from the orange groves on his family’s estate. When compared with his brother Mark, he seems soft and boyish. After the attacks, however, Randy assumes greater responsibility. He becomes guardian of his brother’s family and forms a tight cooperative with neighbors and friends. By the end, Randy is a tough, decisive, and just leader of the town of Fort Repose. 

In many ways, Randy is uniquely qualified to act as a leader in his community. He is intelligent and well-read, comes from a respected family, is politically progressive and interested in political office, and has a background in law and the military. Because of his background in law, he is able to craft new laws that prevent the community from descending into chaos. For instance, he declares that marriage licenses are no longer needed, and that (since the courthouse is now defunct) all birth and marriage records will be kept at the town library. With his military background, Randy is able to form a militia that enforces the law and punishes crime. When bandits strike in Fort Repose, he and his “army” act quickly, killing three in a shootout and hanging one in the public square.

Randy is an example of a dynamic character, one who changes over the course of a novel. Early in the novel, his friend Dan Gunn predicts, “Some nations and some people come apart like fat in the pan. Others meet the challenge and harden. I think you’re going to harden.” When his world is changed forever by a horrific war, Randy rises to the challenge.

2. Discuss the portrayal of women and minorities in Alas, Babylon.

Alas, Babylon appeared in 1959, as African-Americans were fighting for civil rights in America and the third wave of the women’s movement was about to begin in the early 1960s. Contemporary readers will note that the portrayal of women and minorities is rather dated and includes gender and racial stereotypes. However, Pat Frank’s novel clearly advocates equal rights for both groups of historically oppressed people.

Female characters, including Helen Bragg, Lib McGovern, and Alice Cooksey, are as brave and intelligent as the men. Except for one lapse, Helen holds up emotionally and capably manages the household even when it is clear that her husband is dead. Lib is educated in psychology, and Alice is an intelligent librarian who, with Florence’s help, expertly maintains the town library. Frank shows that gender roles are changing. Peyton, the eleven-year-old daughter of Helen Bragg, does not wish to be seen as “only a girl, fit for sewing, sweeping, pot washing, and making beds” (237). She goes off by herself on a fishing expedition and brings back food for the family.

It is true that most female characters are limited to activities “appropriate” to their gender (housekeeping, librarianship), and women are portrayed as overly emotional and helpless (as in one scene, in which Randy finds the women all in tears over Peyton’s temporary disappearance). Randy concludes that “the more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that he had learned this: they needed a man around” (241). But despite these sexist stereotypes, the overall message of the novel is one of gender equality.

Likewise, the African-American characters in the novel are portrayed as no better or worse than the whites. The Henrys are more capable of survival than most white characters, as they cultivate the land, raise livestock, and in the case of Preacher Henry, know how to catch fish when nothing is biting. The expertise and support of the Henrys enables the Braggs and McGoverns to survive.

The near-saintliness attributed to Malachai could be seen as reverse stereotyping, and negative stereotyping of minorities includes Two-Tone as a shiftless drinker and Rita Hernandez as the “hot” Latina. However, again, the overall message is that minorities are the equals of whites. In the aftermath of the war, the segregation of black and white becomes a thing of the past: “There were two drinking fountains in Marines Park, one marked ‘White Only,’ the other ‘Colored Only.’ Since neither worked, the signs were meaningless.” Caleb Henry is educated alongside the Bragg children. At least in that one regard, the war brings progress to Fort Repose. 

3. Discuss the theme of survival of the fittest in Alas, Babylon. Who survives, and who does not? Why?

Alas, Babylon portrays a post-apocalyptic world in which the weak perish and the strong survive, in keeping with the model of classical Darwinism (named after the English naturalist Charles Darwin whose book The Origin of Species in 1859 proposed that species evolve through a process of natural selection). As Randy puts it in Chapter 7, “Survival of the fittest . . . The strong survive. The frail die. The exotic fish die because the aquarium isn’t heated. The common guppy lives. So does the tough catfish. . . .  That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Among the first to die in the aftermath of the bombing are the people who are obese or otherwise physically unfit. Several die of heart attacks on The Day. Lavinia McGovern, a diabetic, dies when the insulin supplies spoil because of a lack of refrigeration. Even had Lavinia not died of diabetes, her lack of ability to adapt to a new environment may well have led to an early death. She was an example of a rich transplanted northerner who knew nothing about the practicalities of living in Florida; for instance, she designed a home with glass walls that would have her roasting in the tropical heat, and with a bathtub that would have permitted the entrance of poisonous snakes, had Randy not noticed the problem. Lack of ability to adapt to a new environment is what kills Edgar Quisenberry, the banker. He is so specialized that he cannot imagine himself as anything but a banker, and cannot imagine living in a world in which banks and money are worthless.

If Lavinia and Edgar are like tropical fish who die when the tank is too cold, then characters like Alice Cooksey and Florence Wechek are like common guppies. Never having expected the world to take care of them, they do not despair in a troubled time, but continue to work steadily to maintain the library as an important source of information and public records. For their part, characters like Randy, Dan Gunn, Helen Bragg, Bill and Lib McGovern, and the Henrys are like tough catfish. Randy evolves from a rather lazy man into a hard worker and a strong leader. He and the others band together to fight for their collective survival, finding innovative ways to feed and protect themselves in a dangerous environment.

4. What examples of failure of leadership can be found in the novel Alas, Babylon?

One of the themes of Alas, Babylon is the failure of leadership. The novel shows how people in positions of power fail to prevent, prepare for, and deal with disaster on a local and national scale. For instance, when the rocket is fired on the port of Latakia, the nation’s leaders fail to take immediate action to apologize for the mistake. Had Washington been quick to respond, the nuclear war might have been prevented through diplomacy. However, egos got in the way, and the result was a delayed and ultimately too ambivalent message to the Soviets, which gave the enemy the perfect excuse for war.

Porky Logan and Bubba Offenhaus are examples of the failure of leadership on a local level. Porky, elected as a representative, readily accepts bribes and espouses bigoted propaganda. In a time of trouble, he hoards wealth for himself and uses it to trade for alcohol. Bubba, elected as Director of Civil Defense for the county, fails to educate the town on the dangers of nuclear conflict. Rather than distribute Civil Defense pamphlets which could help save lives in a time of disaster, Bubba passes them off to the town librarian, complaining they take up too much room in his office. When an emergency occurs and Porky Logan needs to be buried quickly, Bubba balks at providing the expensive casket and the gas for hearse transport, even though neglecting to do so could mean death for the greater community. In fact, Bubba accepted the job because it was prestigious for him, but actually, he took no interest in leading on the topic. Randy must force Bubba to accept his role in protecting public health and safety.

By contrast, Randy is a natural leader who is concerned for justice and equality. 

When no one else acts, Randy steps into a power vacuum and takes the reins of leadership in his town, creating new laws, enforcing them, and forming a militia to swiftly punish criminals who disturb the public peace.

5. What lessons can be drawn from Alas, Babylon about how to survive in a post-nuclear war society? How were the residents of Fort Repose able to survive their new reality?

One of Pat Frank’s interests as a journalist was the subject of how to survive in a post-nuclear war society. In 1962, Frank published a nonfiction book on how to survive a nuclear attack, entitled How to Survive the H-Bomb—and Why. The book Alas, Babylon, is fiction, but it does contain some realistic ideas on how humans could survive in such an extreme condition.

First of all, the characters who survive are lucky enough to be in an area that is least affected by radioactive fallout and stayed away from contaminated areas and goods. Those who touched contaminated metals died of radiation poisoning. They are able to find a source of clean water (such as the Henrys’ artesian well). All water must be boiled thoroughly before drinking, or there is a danger of typhoid fever, as affected several families in the novel.

Secondly, those who survive are lucky enough to live in an area that is warm year-round and where there are adequate natural resources for food. They are in a rural area where livestock and crops are available, and where a water source nearby allows for fishing. A source of salt is necessary not only to preserve meats, but also to satisfy the body’s natural need for the mineral. Randy and the others are able to discover a natural salt pool thanks to the diary of Randy’s ancestor, who had been shown to it by native peoples.

A third important point is that in order to survive an attack, people must work cooperatively and pool their talents and resources, as did the Braggs and their neighbors. In the absence of a cash economy, trade is vital. Those who failed to share their resources with others and who instead hoarded riches—that is, Porky Logan, Bigmouth Bill, and Pete Hernandez—died a horrible death. 

Ingenuity and flexibility are important to survival in a world without electricity, in which gasoline has become scarce. When technology fails, those who survive must be able to create or find more primitive tools, such as the spear used by Caleb to kill a wild dog, or the hand-crank music player found by Peyton in the Braggs’ attic. When modern medicine is not available, alternate methods must be found, as when Doctor Gunn finds he can hypnotize patients as a form of anesthesia.

The book Alas, Babylon may seem overly optimistic to some, as it portrays a relatively happy ending to a story of apocalyptic war. Rather than descend into utter chaos, the residents of Fort Repose are able to form some sort of civilized society, and to survive what many would think are unsurvivable conditions.

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