The sleepy little town of Fort Repose is only vaguely aware of events outside its borders. Given their druthers, certain members of the community — the Daughters of the Confederacy, the White Citizens Council — would prefer that they be even less aware of the outside world and its alarmingly modern ideas. The isolationists are going to get their wish, but not in a form they would have wanted.
“Alas, Babylon”: that phrase in a telegram from his brother Mark, a SAC officer, warns Randy Bragg that the long cold war between East and West is about to become hot.
While anyone can see that a nuclear war would be calamitous for all involved, the Soviets don’t value life as Americans do (or so the author seems to assume). Their strategic window of opportunity is rapidly closing; they are on a hair-trigger, ready to use their bombs while they still have the edge (or believe that they do). All it would take to trigger war is a moment of bad judgment, something like an American airman firing his missile at an enemy plane, but hitting a munitions train instead. The explosion that follows is prodigious, perhaps even nuclear; it leaves the Syrian port of Latakia a blasted ruin.
By noon of the following day, most of the major cities of the first and second worlds have joined Latakia in nuclear oblivion. The Soviet first strike succeeds in killing tens of millions, but it fails to cripple the Western military. The American retaliation is swift and lethal. Soon, the only significant cities left on the planet are those in neutral countries.
Fort Repose is far too unimportant to warrant thermonuclear oblivion. Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and many other cities are not so lucky; either they have strategic importance or they are adjacent to military bases with strategic importance. By sheer random luck, the wind carries fallout away from Fort Repose; the locals will survive, at least for the moment. But they will have to do survive entirely on local resources, because the rest of the state is a radioactive shambles and the remnants of the Federal government won’t have the time to worry about militarily irrelevant pockets until well after the war is over. If ever.
And Fort Repose was never self-sufficient.
This book has an interesting genesis: someone asked the author (Harry Hart Frank; Pat was his pen name) what Frank thought the outcome of a nuclear war would be. Frank thought the US would win, but lose a third of its population in the process. His friend responded with “Wow! Fifty or sixty million dead! What a depression that would make!” Frank thought “what a depression” was short of the mark; thus this novel.
Certain features do mark this as a period piece and not just the rather implausible American/Russian rivalry over Syria that is the casus belli of the novel. Fort Repose is a Southern town with its own White Citizen Council; whenever the novel is set, it is likely before the Federal civil liberties legislation of the 1960s. This is not surprising, as the novel was written before the Federal civil liberties legislation of the 1960s.
While it’s clear that Frank rejects the racial caste system of the early 1960s US1, or at least consciously intends to repudiate it, this novel does not so much reject certain regrettable tropes as embrace them with great enthusiasm. There’s the hot-blooded Minorcan vamp whose commercial ventures do not bear close examination, the shiftless black man supported by his hard working wife, the rather shouty minister, and the heroic young black man who dies saving his white pals. Well, maybe he and Frank Mitsui2 can play chess in Heaven.
This is very much a Missile-Gap-era novel, product of a time when it was convenient for various factions within the US to issue exaggerated estimates of Soviet prowess. The author, not having access to the actual figures, bases his war on a situation in which the Soviets have more ICBMs than they actually did in the early 1960s3.
The book does not address the long-term climactic and environmental effects of the war — this is of course long before the famous TTAPS climate models, but after such classics as Effects of Superweapons Upon the Climate of the World. Whether Frank had ever read such works or even heard about them I couldn’t say. It is also possible, of course, that he did realize that there would be severe long-term effects, but felt that they were outside the scope of his book, which covers only one year post-catastrophe.
Frank isn’t trying to recapitulate On the Beach here, so Fort Repose is shown as safe from fallout (at least for the moment). Otherwise, he makes plausible assumptions about what might happen in a small Florida town thrown back on limited local resources. Anyone with a medical condition that requires constant medication dies fairly quickly. Other shortages take longer to manifest themselves, but they do show up. The real question is how far Fort Repose has yet to fall; a single year may not be enough time to definitively hit bottom.
Although his intention is to show the unexpected downside of a thermonuclear exchange, Frank’s decision to focus on one small town isolated by, but not directly touched by, the war means most of its true horrors occur offstage. We see a handful of radiation victims and hear about millions incinerated in their sleep. Of course, there would have been many millions outside the instant death zone but close enough to ground zero to be who were merely lightly but eventually fatally injured by burns and radiation, not to mention my old favourite “translational damage”4. Those people could have lived for a very long time, although not as long as it seemed to be to them.
This is a classic post-apocalyptic novel. If many of its elements seem familiar, that’s likely because later authors copied those elements from Alas, Babylon. It was popular enough in its day to warrant adaptation by Playhouse 90; unfortunately, that particular episode has been lost. I don’t think the book has ever gone out of print in the almost sixty years since it was first published.
1: In the novel, the town’s racial caste system falls apart once the whites realize the black population, having been relegated to subsistence farming for decades, are far better prepared for the aftermath than are the whites. If the whites are to survive, they have to cooperate with the black population. I think Frank is being sunnily optimistic here. It might take all of five minutes for the White Citizens Council to convince itself that massacring the black population and taking their stuff was the only sensible option.
2: A character in Heinlein’s Sixth Column.
3: We don’t know the exact year when the novel is supposed to take place, but the setting is clearly some time before the Chinese got the Bomb. One of the little plot twists is that Red China decides that participating in a nuclear war without nuclear weapons of its own is a mug’s game, so they sit it out (and so survive to be one of the post-War Big Three: China, India, and Japan.). No doubt their Soviet allies were overjoyed by the Chinese decision to remain neutral — a sentiment which might have turned to regret as those Soviets were evaporated by American bombs.
In real life it turns out the US Single Integrated Operational Plan wasn’t flexible enough not to nuke the Red Chinese, even if the Chinese declared neutrality at the last minute. Frank could not have known. And I bet it would have been a hilarious surprise for China as well.
4: People being thrown into things by blast or having things thrown into or through them by blast. The chart in The Effects of Nuclear Weapons that illustrates this has an adorable little puppy in it, if you look closely enough.