One more classic in the PA genre, Alas, Babylon falls into the short-term category, where the novel follows the events of the cataclysm itself and the immediate aftermath. In this case, it is a very realistic Cold War nuclear exchange. In some ways, Alas, Babylon is more of a Cold War novel than a true Post-Apocalyptic novel. Though in content it is in every way an "after" novel and a really good one, I suspect that the primary goal of the writer was to address what many considered a very real possibility of the time rather than to explore an alternate future of our collapsed society.
It all takes place in a very small town in Florida. The protagonist is a young lawyer and Korean War vet from an old local and upper class family. He is a bit down and unmotivated, taking out a lot of women and drinking bourbon in his coffee every morning. His brother is a high-ranking intelligence officer and he sends him a coded message that basically says the shit is going to hit the fan. Within a day, the hero in a disorganized scramble tries to prepare for the oncoming nuclear war. He also must take in his brother's wife and two kids.
The preparations and the small town's reaction to his change in behaviour are portrayed in some detail. The theme is this guy trying to get his head around what he has to do and realizing how much of his life and the lives of those around him is totally dependent on the civilized technological infrastructure. The town is portrayed as being even more clueless than him. A black family lives on his land and they are shown to be the most resourceful because they have been kept at such a low level relative to the white society. They know how to fish, farm, get clean water from the aquafer, cook local flora and fauna.
When the bombs do hit, it's quite exciting and really well done. You see it all from the protagonist's eyes, from a distance because there are no direct hits near the town. This isn't a case of total and sudden chaos, because the town stays intact. But radio and television service stops as do incoming deliveries. The first thing to really go is the local economy. I will stop going into geeky detail here, because a lot of the pleasure of the book is watching it all come apart. It really is very thoughtfully done.
Of all the other PA books I've read, Alas, Babylon makes me think of Earth Abides the most. Both are from an American perspective, from very similar times. The major difference is the timescales. But they are saying similar things. Our society rests on a very large and fragile framework. Though this book has greater faith in our human and American traditions, suggesting that with work and organization we can bring them back.
There was one thing that struck me was how incredibly removed from nature the people of this town in Florida are. They sound worse than we are today. For example: "Before The Day, except in hunting, or in war, a five- or ten-mile walk would have been unthinkable." Really? I find that surprising. Also, a woman says that they are going to have to go back to the "old-fashioned" way of feeding babies, breastfeeding. I know that they were insane about their doctors in the 50s, but I assumed most people still breast fed.
An excellent book. I strongly recommend it.
Here is Mt. Benson's better written review. We look at it with very similar perspectives, but I think his point that Pat Frank "doesn't question whether a codified society will survive; he wants to assure us that it will take a firm hand to guide us there" is well made and does differentiate Alas, Babylon from the more final Earth Abides.