Alas, Babylon is set in Fort Repose, a fictional town in central Florida, in the late 1950s. As the story opens, Florence Wechek, a gossipy but kindhearted telegraph operator, is getting ready for work. On the television news are reports of Soviet satellites violating U.S. airspace and of trouble in the Middle East. Florence, uninterested in world politics, flips the channel. She turns her attention to her neighbor, Randy Bragg, a thirty-two-year-old playboy bachelor who lives in a neighboring mansion on River Road. Florence believes Randy is peeping at her with binoculars (he’s actually birdwatching and has mistaken her pet bird for an extinct parakeet). As she leaves her home, she gives him a cold greeting.
Randy is a lawyer and veteran of the Korean War. A political progressive who wishes to change the bigoted attitudes of his Southern town, Randy has run, unsuccessfully, for political office. He comes from an old Florida family; his ancestor, Lieutenant Randolph Rowzee Peyton, founded the town of Fort Repose, and his late father was a well-respected judge. However, on the whole, Randy is rather lazy. He seldom works, as he is able to live comfortably on the income provided by the orange groves on his family’s estate, and he enjoys a drink and a good time with women. Randy has little to worry about in his life—that is, until today, when Florence, at work in the Western Union office, calls with a “peculiar” telegram.
The message is from Randy’s older brother Mark, a U.S. Air Force colonel working in intelligence for the Strategic Air Command (SAC). It reads: “Urgent you meet me at Base Ops McCoy noon today. Helen and children flying to Orlando tonight. Alas, Babylon.” The phrase “Alas, Babylon”—borrowed from the firebrand sermons of the local Preacher Henry—is a code Randy and Mark have used since childhood to indicate an impending disaster. Randy knows exactly what it means: the United States is about to come under a nuclear attack.
Randy heads for McCoy Air Force base in Orlando, where he will meet his brother Mark and learn more about the emergency. As he drives, he listens to the radio news. Russia has accused Turkey and the U.S. of plotting to crush Syria and warns that any nations harboring American bases will be destroyed in war. It sounds like the usual posturing of the Cold War. Randy wonders how Mark can be sure the threat is real.
Meanwhile, Florence Wechek lunches with her friend Alice Cooksey, the town librarian. Alice is a progressive voice in their rural town, defending the library from censorship. Florence and Alice discuss Randy and the strange telegram he received. Back at the library, Alice consults the Bible and finds a passage about the destruction of Babylon. She guesses the meaning of the telegram and, frightened, decides to come out and stay with Florence for the weekend—or perhaps longer.
At McCoy Air Base, Randy speaks with Lieutentant Colonel Paul Hart, a squadron commander and friend of Mark’s. Hart explains that most of the personnel and more than half the air fleet have been evacuated, as McCoy will be a prime target for Russian bombs. Mark arrives by jet with other military brass, looking like an older, tougher version of Randy. Mark explains the situation: Russia wants control of the Mediterranean. In order to get it, they’re willing to blow up every enemy military base in Europe, Africa, North America, and the Pacific. Russian subs have already been detected in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Among the Russians’ major targets will be the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, where Mark is stationed. Mark can’t leave his post, but he plans to send his wife, Helen, and two young children to live with Randy, where he hopes they will be safe. Mark gives Randy a check for five thousand dollars, urging him to cash it right away and buy supplies. Gravely, he asks Randy to take care of Helen and to be a good father to his children. Mark doesn’t expect to survive the war.
Analysis of Chapters 1–2
Chapters 1 and 2 focus on developing the setting and characters. Alas, Babylon, was published in 1959, at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The two superpowers were then competing for control of the world stage through strategic posturing, threats, and accumulation of high-technology weapons. At the time the book was written, many people in the U.S. believed that the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in weapon technology and manufacture, a cause of even greater worry for Americans, as described by Mark Bragg at the end of Chapter 1. Although war never broke out between the two nations, it was fought by proxy in Korea and later Vietnam and other countries in Asia, Africa, and Central America. But all throughout this extremely tense period, both nations lived under the constant threat of thermonuclear war. Pat Frank wrote this novel to explore what might happen in an ordinary community if war did, in fact, devastate the United States.
The name “Fort Repose” suggests a military fort at rest. This rural Florida town, like the rest of the nation, is ill prepared for a nuclear attack. One of the main themes Frank addresses in the book is the importance of educating the public about how to survive a nuclear conflict. Lack of preparation is deadly.
In a humorous device, Randy, the hero of the novel, is first seen through the eyes of his neighbor, Florence Wechek, as a ne’er-do-well peeping Tom. However, as the novel continues, Randy’s positive characteristics are revealed. 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. These qualities will help Randy emerge as an important leader in the community of Fort Repose in the aftermath of the attacks.