Monday, September 28, 2009

The Day

"Behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."


Something possessed me the past few days to reread Pat Frank's nuclear holocaust novel Alas, Babylon, which was an assigned text in 11th grade English, for me circa 1985. At the time I recall finding it both thrilling and horrifying, while this time I found it somewhat quaint; whether this says more about me or about the change in global politics or narrative trends I'm not sure.

Alas, Babylon is fifty years old this year, as is its SF cousin extraordinaire, Walter Miller, Jr.'s quasi-Catholic A Canticle for Leibowitz. There is something about such apocalyptic stories that inspire Biblical references and religious expostulations. Indeed, around the time that I read Alas, Babylon a quarter century ago at an impressionable age I also found myself in a death struggle of sorts with the Southern Baptist teachings that I had equivocally experienced until that time. The notion that the world can change in an instant--unpredictably, whether for good or for ill--is appalling and intolerable. Some forces are of too great a magnitude to be comprehended on a human scale.

Frank's novel probably appealed for one reason because it was set in central Florida, in the drolly fictional town of Fort Repose; somehow one does not associate radiation poisioning with palm trees. Much about the book evokes mid-century American culture: a certain smug can-do attitude even amid the horror, a preoccupation with race relations, and the way in which women anchor domestic life. The very context of a small town--beyond the expediency of a setting in which all of the potential characters haven't already been vaporized--seemed tailor-made to demonstrate the virtues of communal spirit. Barbarism occurs, but in measured forms, and off-stage.

The 1980's, as I recall the period at least, presented an ambiguous threat. The notorious height of the nuclear nightmare was a generation gone, and yet the danger was as present as ever. The age of Reagan was vaguely brisk and invigorating, but for the same reason unsettling; the Soviets seemed to be descending into torpor, but that very fact could foster unthinkable risk. Might the Soviet Union lapse into such decrepit and desperate backwardness that it would have virtually nothing to lose by unloosing its venom in a cataclysmic act of resentment against the West? The made-for-TV movie The Day After appeared in 1983.

Many apocalyptic storylines presented holocaust as arising from a long, if improbable, string of geopolitical tensions, reactions, and counter-reactions. For some reason I always envisioned The Day (as it is forever known in Alas, Babylon) as arising, if it ever did, abruptly and absurdly, not from an overcompensation for comprehensible provocations, but from a mechanical error, or from some psychotic fool pushing the wrong button at the wrong time, a la Dr. Strangelove. No doubt this dread arose from ignorance of what I'm sure are countless safeguards against the ultimate malfunction, but I saw the situations as two men prancing indefinitely on a high-wire; the greatest hazard came not from one deliberately pushing the other off, but from the recklessness of the basic setup.

Now we worry about Iran, about dirty bombs, about terrorists obliterating a city or two. This would be horrifically disastrous. And yet the menace of U.S.-Soviet mutually assured destruction is still, theoretically of course, present. I recall dreaming and daydreaming as a teenager about the second sun on the horizon, the mushroom cloud; my soon-to-be teenaged daughter will be spared these reflections, hopefully, whereas for my younger son these things are curiosities on Youtube, and the greatest thing to fear is the collapse of skyscrapers. Yet all those missiles are still out there, waiting to go, as ready now as they or there predecessors ever were.

Compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road of a couple of years ago, Alas, Babylon is like a holiday fireworks display. The Road features a man and his son who, beyond numb with deprivation, make their way through an American landscape that has been burnt and scoured as clean as the moon, in which the only sources of nourishment are scavenged canned goods and cannibalism. It is ironic that the actual horrors of our time are borne ambiguously in Afghanistan, forgotten by perhaps the majority of Americans, whereas the fictional horrors of the time, now mainstream narrative tastes, would have turned stomachs in 1959. Are we wiser, or merely more cynical?

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