Alas Babylon: Theme Analysis
Importance of Preparation
Pat Frank wrote Alas, Babylon as a warning of what could happen if the United States suffered a nuclear attack. He demonstrates in the novel how unprepared the nation is for such an attack. For instance, Bubba Offenhaus, county Deputy Director of Civil Defense, is given pamphlets about the dangers of radiation, but neglects to hand them out, thinking them “too gruesome” (67). Stockpiles of food and medicine are stored in the cities, which are annihilated in war, and not in a safe place in the countryside. The narrator notes: “Civil Defense, as a realistic buffer against thermonuclear war, did not exist. Evacuation zones for entire cities had never been publicly announced, out of a fear of ‘spreading alarm.’ Only the families of military personnel knew what to do” (100). The need for better preparation is one of the key messages of Pat Frank’s book.
Modern Overdependence on Technology
Alas, Babylon is a cautionary tale for the modern world, one that often rings just as true—or even more so—today as it did fifty years ago when it was first written. The book depicts a society too reliant on technology, one in which children watch television rather than read, and in which people cannot imagine a life without supermarkets, running water, dishwashers, outboard motors, and automobiles. When the residents of Fort Repose are forced to go back “a hundred years” (120) to a time before these conveniences existed, they erupt into chaos and confusion. The more people depend on technology, Frank warns, the more helpless they become without it. Those who survive will be those who are resourceful, who are able to overcome the destruction of the technology that everyone took for granted.
Some readers may find the ending of the novel to be overly optimistic. The body of the novel takes a pessimistic view of the chances of humanity avoiding a nuclear war. But after disaster has struck, the small community of Fort Repose appears to have rallied, its citizens creating order and civilization in the aftermath of destruction. The doctor has discovered a new way to anesthetize patients. New sources of food and minerals are discovered. People band together to help one another. But Pat Frank’s message is one of hope emerging from destruction and despair. Humankind, he believes, will survive no matter what the circumstances.
The Folly of War
An overarching theme of Alas, Babylon is the foolishness of war. Pat Frank shows that with the invention of massively destructive thermonuclear weaponry, the two then-superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, would have to be crazy to turn the Cold War into a hot one. As Admiral Hazzard points out: “The truth is this. Once both sides had maximum capability in hydrogen weapons and efficient means of delivering them there was no sane alternative to peace. . . . War was no longer an instrument of national policy, only an instrument for national suicide. War itself was obsolete. . . . but we could not accept it” (190). In the end of the novel, all the major cities of the U.S. lie in radioactive rubble, but the sad irony is that the United States has won the war. A pyrrhic victory indeed. Looking back from a post-cold war perspective, it is clear that in reality, both superpowers shared the view expressed by Admiral Hazzard in the novel. In the forty years of the cold war, nuclear war was avoided because both sides realized that the cost of it would be too high for both sides.