What it’s about: After nuclear war devastates the United States, the survivors in a small Florida town must work together to rebuild civilization in the first post-apocalyptic tale of the nuclear age.
Why I liked it: In rereading Alas, Babylon, I find that it holds up very well as a post-apocalyptic survival story. It is very much a product of its time, in that I don’t think this kind of story could have occurred at any other point than the height of the Cold War. It may seem problematic in its portrayal of women and African Americans, but I think for the time it was quite progressive. It was published when separate but equal was the rule in the South, and points out that separation of the races makes no sense when everyone’s contributions are needed to keep civilization going. It’s true that the African-American characters aren’t as nuanced as modern readers would expect, but that didn’t distract me from the gist of the story. As for the women, this is not a feminist book, but the women are free agents who can act without the permission of the men. The librarian character was particularly proactive, finding solutions that the doctor hadn’t even thought of and ensuring that the free exchange of ideas and knowledge would continue post-apocalypse.
At one point as I was reading this, when the narrator was worrying about the problem of salt, it occurred to me that it wasn’t that long ago when all men and women lived this way. That is, without the benefits of electricity or automobiles or antibiotics. Every day was a gamble, but still, people kept on, despite not enjoying the level of security and control over our lives that we have. The real point of Alas, Babylon is how fragile our modern civilization is, yet we depend on it so much; it could all be wiped out in an instant. We almost forget how resilient and resourceful humans can be. Rereading Alas, Babylon is a good reminder of what we take for granted.
Who might like it: Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, such as The Postman by David Brin or Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.