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When Did We Trade In the New Frontier for the Apocalypse?

You have to go all the way back to the '50s to find real, touching faith in our society during a time of crisis. What happened?
Interior of Bomb Shelter

Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon is a fascinating artifact of mid-century Americana, the pop lit equivalent of a battleship-sized Cadillac or drive-in movie theater. The book imagines a nuclear war and its aftermath in a small Florida town, yet compared to other entrants in the post-apocalyptic genre, it’s downright optimistic.

Unlike Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Frank does not anticipate the utter destruction of the human race by radioactive fallout. Despite its biblical title, the book is not infused with the Catholic pessimism of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. In There Will Come Soft Rains, Ray Bradbury imagined the half-life of an automated house after the nuclear annihilation of its inhabitants. Frank shares Bradbury’s interest in space-age gadgetry, but he was confident the same can-do spirit that produced supersonic jets and mass refrigeration would allow us endure an atomic holocaust. He actually followed the success of his novel with a practical handbook for surviving nuclear war.  

It is strange to describe a book about nuclear war as “hopeful,” but Alas, Babylon is very much a product of its time. The main character is a genteel Southern liberal whose Atticus Finch-ian political outlook strikes modern readers as quaint and outmoded. The book suggests that the United States invited a Russian first strike by falling behind the Soviets in missile production, the same “missile gap” that John Kennedy would warn about in the 1960 election (the anxieties were real enough, though the actual gap was a false alarm). Even as a nuclear exchange looms, Frank is infatuated with the gee-whiz technology of his era. Jet fighters, carrier battle groups, and heat-seeking missiles are all described in loving detail.   

The book’s space age feel extends to its treatment of American society. For the most part, the townspeople face the end of the world with stoic equanimity. Despite its strategic missteps, the American government of Alas, Babylon is surprisingly resilient, even admirable. The president declines to evacuate Washington, D.C. at the height of the crisis, dying in a nuclear blast rather than abandoning his post. Senior military officers are calm and farsighted. Junior officers are competent and efficient. 

It is difficult to imagine a contemporary author treating our institutions with the same sort of reverence. A mere 20 years later, Stephen King would describe a pandemic followed by a society-wide breakdown in The Stand, including a race war within the ranks of the American military. In The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s 2012 post-apocalyptic novel, the Pentagon’s response to a viral outbreak of its own making is to use a civilian refugee camp to lure the infected into a kill zone. The Twelve was written over 30 years after The Stand, nearly double the amount of time between the publication of King’s book and Alas, Babylon, but King and Cronin were both writing on the other side of Vietnam and the cultural sea change of the 1960s. Frank’s book basks in the glow of victory in the Second World War and a decade of postwar prosperity and progress. 

It is particularly striking to revisit Frank’s can-do Americanism from the murky vantage point of 2020. The atmosphere is no less apocalyptic, but compared to the relatively straightforward prospect of global nuclear war, the threats are diffuse and hard to comprehend, much less quantify. In Alas, Babylon, war can be averted or escalated from a command bunker with a red telephone. Risk is understood by tallying up the number of bombers, submarines, and missiles on each side. Today, a mysterious virus emanating from a little-known Chinese city is either a minor disruption in the global supply chain or a harbinger of the apocalypse, depending on who you follow on Twitter. And if the alarmists are right, it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone at the Centers for Disease Control “managing” a virus outbreak with the calm professionalism of Frank’s characters. 

Global nuclear war is an easily comprehensible, albeit terrifying, possibility. Our modern vision of the apocalypse is amorphous and shot through with partisan anxieties. Political upheaval bubbles up from the social media fever swamps—or maybe it’s just a few internet-addled partisans aping the revolutionary figures of yesteryear. Humanity is faced with an impending environmental collapse—unless you’re on the other side of the political spectrum, in which case you’re worried about nuclear terrorism or a looming confrontation with China. The latest global health crisis is a case in point. There is no “objective” assessment of the risk of a coronavirus pandemic. Everyone’s judgment is informed by prior assumptions about globalization, interconnectivity, and open borders. Even the World Health Organization has to walk on eggshells for fear of offending the Chinese.   

And when a threat finally does materialize out of the ether, it is hard to imagine anyone retaining Frank’s faith in our capacity for problem solving. The last two decades have seen a cascade of failure across every conceivable social, economic, and political institution. The financial crisis of 2009, another amorphous, barely understood catastrophe, confounded the technocrats and exposed our bedrock financial institutions. Our military and intelligence agencies have been discredited by two decades of fruitless war in the Middle East and Central Asia. From Trump’s crude self-aggrandizement to Hunter Biden’s opportunistic leveraging of familial connections to Jeffrey Epstein’s bizarre suicide, our entire political class is tarred by corruption and incompetence.   

The cars, racial politics, and telegrams of Alas, Babylon are all relics of a bygone era, but the book’s most dated feature is Frank’s oddly touching faith in American society. Frank was writing at a time when even the threat of nuclear annihilation couldn’t dim our collective optimism. Today, the head of the Department of Homeland Security seems to think that flu and coronavirus mortality rates are comparable, while his underling complains on Twitter that an open-source map of the outbreak has been paywalled. America survived the Cold War without a nuclear exchange, and we will probably muddle through our current era of dysfunction, but Frank’s post-war faith in American society is gone forever.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.