A world dies by fire or by plague. And by “die,” the respective authors of Alas, Babylon and Earth Abides show us that someone’s going to live through the disasters. Otherwise, these would be dreary stories indeed.
Alas, Babylon is Pat Frank’s 1959 novel which tells the story of a nuclear World War Three from the perspective of the fictitious small town Fort Repose, Florida. Fort Repose is the eye of the hurricane while the rest of the world seems to go up in nuclear flames. The town is isolated and relies on spotty radio reports for news. Military bases all around them have been hit by nukes. The survivors rally together as a community to deal with such issues as food, water, radiation, and bandits.
The story sucks the reader in quickly enough and doesn’t waste too much time getting to the good parts as the war starts because of a military accident which triggers a Soviet nuclear response. Soon we leave the world scene to focus solely on the community striving against the odds where the balance of the drama lies. Considering that this book is over fifty years old, it holds up quite well as it explores the different tough choices a small town would have to face when cut off from everything. How do they deal with strangers stuck in town? How do they enforce the law? Who do they trust when it comes to the government as they hear various reports on the radio as to the succession of power?
Of the two books here, Alas, Babylon is the page turner throughout, and it inspired later writers in the post-apocalypse genre like David Brin and William R. Forstchen.
More famous and considered a classic of literature is George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, written in 1949. Here a mysterious plague wipes out almost everyone except for the main character Ish. Like Alas, Babylon, little time is wasted getting to Ish surviving the plague while recovering from a snake bite suffered while on a geographic survey up in the mountains. By the time he returns to civilization, the disaster is over, and Ish must figure out what to do next.
There are survivors, and most are not coping well. Ish continues solo until he finds a dog, establishing a trope used by movies and video games ever since. The story is more encompassing of how the disaster affects civilization, as Ish eventually travels cross-country to see different communities, each with different solutions of how to carry on. We follow Ish as he settles down to establish his own family with a woman named Em, and they together begin to form a fragile, growing community. The novel is at its best when the family has to make decisions like what’s most important to teach their children, how much to rely on technology that won’t be replicated in their life time, and even what it means to be civilized. The part with revitalizing the car battery makes me realize that anything more complex than jumper cables will leave me without a vehicle.
I’ve reread this book a few times over the years and have enjoyed it every time. There’s a reason it holds up as one of the greats of science fiction as it weighs big ideas without losing sight of its characters and their personal challenges.
Even more so than Alas, Babylon, Earth Abides’ influence is great, laying much of the foundation for many post-apocalyptic stories and cited as an influence by other writers including Stephen King’s novel The Stand. Both come as highly recommended, both for fans of science fiction and its post-apoc subgenre, as well as those who just like good story-telling.
I appreciate any comments and thoughts you may have.
(Here’s a link to In Search of the Post-Apocalypse Pt 1