23 February 2012

Mental Ground Zero

1. The location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall  (source).
When I was younger, nuclear war was probably my biggest fear. If it wasn't my biggest, it was certainly right up there with mice, and being brutally murdered in the woods at night. Like most childhood (and lasting) fears in my family, I think we can blame this one on my mom. I don't know how old I was the first time I watched the double bill of Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. It's likely that long before I saw those she told me stories about how the bomb drills they did at her school as a child and how she thought she would die during the missile crisis. 

Eventually my fear spawned a fascination with, and love of, apocalyptic fiction. I still picture a nuclear holocaust when people talk about the end of the world, but I no longer fear it as much. Mostly because I figure I'll die instantly and won't have to try to survive in a Road-like world. So, when I found out about the nuclear apocalypse classic Alas, Babylon, I had to read it.

It's unfair to compare this 1959 book to The Road (2006), given the almost 5 decades that separate them. I will, however, compare it to another book published around the same time and fuelled by the same visceral sense of how possible these scenarios are: On the Beach (1957). There are many more, and I've read many more, of course, but I'll stick with this. 

Alas, Babylon takes place in a small Florida town and focuses on Randy (a name I can't hear without Spike's enraged voice in my head "Randy Giles?!"), the typical male protagonist. He ends up taking in his sister-in-law and her children right before the war, and the post-war story deals mostly with how they and their neighbours survive in the post-nuclear war world. Where On the Beach takes place entirely after the war, this book starts a day or two before the bombs fall. Randy's brother tips him off that something is coming, so that part of the book builds a nice tension and has an appropriate sense of impending doom. 

After the bombs fall, the book isn't as good. It's as though the author had a checklist of what would be the impediments to survival and wanted to cram them all in there: no gasoline, no electricity, scarce protein sources, salt shortage, no medicine, kids growing out of their shoes, etc. In a small town where everything is shipped in, you can imagine that the little things wouldn't last long. The author also had a less comprehensive list of how society in the town would be affected: useless currency, bartering is king, some people would hoard, some would be generous, some would be unable to adapt and kill themselves or die, diseases would spring up, criminals would roam free, marital law would be needed. But it really felt like a checklist, just a series of bad things happening and being quickly resolved. It all seemed possible, when viewed through the lens of what was known about fallout and radiation at the time, but not presented in a realistic manner.  The ending, as well was not realistic and way too upbeat. The portrayal of the impact of such events at a personal level was not well done in this book, not nearly as well as in On the Beach. That book stayed with me, and I cried through the last of it. The only time I came close to crying in Alas, Babylon was when they shot a feral German Shepherd (the breed of my last dog) whose name tag said "Lindy" (the name of my childhood dog). That was just awful.

My last qualm with the book is the sexism. I expect a certain amount in books this old. It usually doesn't bother me, mostly because it is often just passive reiteration of general societal views as opposed to active, woman-hating sexism (I'm looking at you, William C. Heine). I try to think of it as a snapshot of an ignorant society, but some comments are just completely unnecessary. I will share two examples with you. 
"She [12 year old  Peyton]...then walked across River Road for a talk with Florence Wechek. She and Florence were good friends and often had long talks, but about simple subjects, such as mending."
Really? A 12 year old girl living in a post-nuclear-apocalypse America can't carry on a long talk about anything other than mending or other simple topics? Does this guy even know any 12 year old girls?
"He went back into the kitchen to clean the beautiful bass and put the crabs in the big pot. It was all ridiculous and stupid. The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that he had learned this: they needed a man around."
This actually made me exclaim out loud. I actually said, "Oh, come on!" to my empty apartment. Especially since the women did play a large role in their survival, since they did all the cooking, foraging, and freaking mending. 


Kimm-my said...

The cover of that book made me think of the "How to survive a nuclear bomb" handout/book that you brought to school one day (I think it was you - seems like something you would have). I don't remember much about it other than a 6 foot concrete wall makes you pretty safe but wet newspapers isn't the best idea - but better than nothing.

Ellie Fish said...

I think the book was something like the "US Military Survival Guide." I'd forgotten about the wet newspaper! I'll have to have a look for it next time I'm in Grafton. I'm pretty sure it's still there.

Justin said...

I really liked On the Beach! It was the gentlest post-apocalyptic book I've ever read, which I think made it that much more effective. I'm a man, so I never cry, but if I ever did cry, it would have been while reading the last 20 or so pages of On the Beach.

Ellie Fish said...

I agree, it's a fabulous book. But your manly assertion makes me think of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGes7FDmHAM.

Your cold, dead heart would really enjoy The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, that won't make it rain on your face.