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10.20.2009

Alas, Babylon and Apex Magazine

I don't know how I got this far along in my life without reading Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. The novel, published in 1959, is purportedly one of the best selling works of apocalyptic science fiction--and for good reason. It's a ripping yarn and a sobering political narrative, populated by round characters and creative plot developments.

Frank, the pen name of journalist and government consultant Harry Hart, writes actively, with a simple approach to sentence structure. The novel is heavy on good dialogue, the Cold War-era phrasing adding a measure of grim realism to the novel.

Frank touches on sentimentality (the joy of hot coffee and the importance of a gallon of gasoline) without becoming sentimental. To the contrary, some sympathetic characters in this one don't survive the nuclear annihilation that wipes out half of America's population (the new capital is Denver, Colorado).

In one typically chilling passage, the head of Fort Repose's bank tries to push a telegram through to the regional Federal Reserve branch in Jacksonville.


Florence rose and walked to the counter with Edgar's message. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Quisenberry," she said, "but I can't send this. Jackosnville doesn't seem to be there any more."

It's this spare prose, in the revelation of just how complete the Russians' annihilation of the United States really is, that gives this text its edge. I won't reveal who won the war, but it's not a spoiler to include this final sentiment in a quick nod to the book's impact:

The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.

It's not a story about the how or the why, but more about the what if? What would happen to our culture? How would the survivors go on with their lives?

It's chilling and absorbing and more than a little frightening. After reading the chapter where Frank details the failure of the paper-money system, I was tempted to go out and invest in gold (but that only gets its worth because people say it has some, so it's not much different).

In terms of online magazines doing great work, I can't say enough good things about Apex Magazine. This magazine features some of the freshest fiction on the internet. Give it a read (and look at the archives--lots of fine stories published in the last three issues) and drop them a comment if you enjoy it.

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