“Alas, Babylon.”(Chapter 1, p. 19)
These are the final, cryptic words of Mark Bragg’s telegram to his brother Randy, warning of impending nuclear war. The phrase “Alas, Babylon” came from the firebrand sermons of Preacher Henry, which Mark and Randy heard as boys. In the Bible, Babylon was a city of sin, destroyed by God. In the novel Alas, Babylon, a nuclear attack destroys many cities in the U.S.
“You see, all their lives, ever since they’ve known anything,they’ve lived under the shadow of war—atomic war. For them the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it.” (Chapter 4, p. 74)
Although the prospect of a nuclear attack is terrifying to the adults in the novel, Helen notes that her children take the news with an eerie calm. They have been raised during the Cold War, a time when a thermonuclear showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was a constant threat. Schoolchildren were taught to duck and cover in case of a nuclear bomb, and fallout shelters were established in every community. Pat Frank finds it sad that children could grow accustomed to such a nightmarishly abnormal state of world affairs.
“Peewee may be a mouse aboard ship, but he’s a tiger in a Tiger. If I sent him up with orders to shoot the moon, he’d try.” (Chapter 4, p. 61)
These words describe Ensign James “Peewee” Cobb, the meek-looking U.S. fighter pilot who accidentally bombs the Syrian port of Latakia, setting off a global war. The incident shows the role of accident and foolish pride in war. A catastrophic war begins, in part, because wimpy Peewee has something to prove.
“Yesterday, he would have stopped instantly. When there was an accident, and someone was hurt, a man stopped. But yesterday was a past period in history, with laws and rules archaic as ancient Rome’s…. With the use of the hydrogen bomb, the Christian era was dead, and with it must die the tradition of the good Samaritan.” (Chapter 5, p. 84)
These are Randy’s thoughts as he encounters a fatal car wreck while fetching the doctor to help his blinded niece. Randy tells himself that it is foolish to stop; in this new era, “a man saved himself and his family and to hell with everyone else.” Ultimately, however, his conscience gets the better of him, and he stops the car to see if there is anything he can do. This quote is telling of Randy’s character: in a time of extreme pressure, he will not abandon his moral code.
“How could life go on if dollars were worthless? How could anybody live without dollars, or credit, or both? … This was the end. Civilization was crushed.” (Chapter 5, p. 103)
Edgar Quisenberry, the bank president, cannot imagine a world without banks and money. He mistakenly believes that a cash economy is necessary to civilization. Unable to cope with a world in which dollars are worthless and his bank only a “heap of stone,” Edgar kills himself.
“You react to crisis in the right way. You remember what Toynbee says? His theory of challenge and response applies not only to nations, but to individuals. Some nations and some people come apart like fat in the pan. Others meet the challenge and harden. I think you’re going to harden.” (Chapter 6, p. 111)
In this quote, Dan Gunn refers to the ideas of historian Arnold Toynbee, who in his books of world history used the principles of challenge and response to describe why civilizations rise and fall. According to Toynbee, when civilizations rise to a challenge, they thrive and grow. When they fail to respond creatively to challenges, they go into decline. Dan Gunn believes that Randy is the sort who will rise to a challenge. As it turns out, he is correct.
“The truth is this. Once both sides had maximum capability in hydrogen weapons and efficient means of delivering them there was no sane alternative to peace. Every maxim of war was archaic. The rules of Clausewitz, Mahan, all of them were obsolete. . . . War was no longer an instrument of national policy, only an instrument for national suicide. War itself was obsolete . . . . but we could not accept it.” (Chapter 9, p. 190)
Admiral Hazzard reflects on how such a horrific nuclear war could have been allowed to happen. He believes that military leaders on both sides were in denial, unable to accept that war had become suicide. Like children playing a game, both sides continued to “line up their lead soldiers” until one side struck first.
“It was a wolf…. It wasn’t a dog any longer. In times like these dogs can turn into wolves. You did just right, Ben. Here, take back your gun.” (Chapter 9, page 197)
While guarding the Henrys’ livestock, young Ben Franklin shoots a dog who has come to prey on chickens. Realizing that the dog is someone’s pet, Ben cries remorsefully. However, as Randy explains, the dog is really not a dog anymore. The incident foreshadows a later scene, in which Randy and the other men kill a pack of bandits. The bandits are human beings, but like the dog, have turned into vicious beasts..
“Survival of the fittest . . . The strong survive. The frail die. The exotic fish die because the aquarium isn’t heated. The common guppy lives. So does the tough catfish. . . . That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.” (Chapter 7, p. 146)
These are Randy’s words to Lib as they contemplate the natural order that exists in the time after the nuclear war. Now, more than ever, Charles Darwin’s theories about the survival of the fittest will govern their world. Those who are weak or ill, such as Lib’s mother, die first. Those people who are so specialized that they cannot adapt to a new environment, such as Edgar Quisenberry, the banker, will also die off. Randy says that he and Lib will have to be tough, like catfish, in order to survive.
“We won it. We really clobbered ’em! . . . Not that it matters.” (Chapter 13, p. 254)
These are the words of Colonel Paul Hart, a friend of Mark Bragg’s who visits Fort Repose as a member of a team surveying the Contaminated Zones. He is astonished to learn that Randy and the others have not heard the outcome of the war—the United States defeated the Soviets. However, as he bitterly acknowledges, it hardly matters. In nuclear war, neither side wins.
Alas Babylon: Top Ten Quotes