Tuesday, June 10, 2014

#160: Alas, Babylon, #117: Bring the Jubilee

Alas, Babylon:

"Nations are like people. When they grow old and rich and fat they get conservative. They exhaust their energy trying to keep things the way they are --and that's against nature."
"Censorship and thought control can exist only in secrecy and darkness."
"It takes two to make a peace but only one to make war."
Written during the fervor and hysteria of the Cold War period, Alas, Babylon makes for fascinating reading while brilliantly articulating the fear and uncertainty of an entire era. Although it may have been even more poignant when read at the height of Soviet Union-American tension during the early 1960s, it remains eye-opening reading in the post(?)-nuclear age. What makes Alas, Babylon so good is its realism. Concerning science fiction, this is one of the most realistic pieces you'll find out there.
 The novel opens with a great account of small town life in Fort Repose, Florida. We are introduced to an array of characters who are all reasonably well fleshed out, although some of them tilt towards the stereotypical at times. We have Florence Wechek --the aging, unmarried busybody, Randy Bragg --the ex-military man and calm voice in crisis, Dan Gunn --the self-sacrificing doctor, the Henrys --a hard-working black family, and a multitude of other engaging minor characters. As a situation between the U.S and the Soviet Union becomes more and more tense, Randy Bragg's military-insider brother, Mark, warns him of an impending nuclear holocaust. After the situation erupts into a full-fledged nuclear war, America's major cities are left devastated, and Fort Repose is one the few towns in America left relatively untouched.
Alas, Babylon is mainly concerned with Randy and his companions' struggles as they battle starvation, radiation, sickness, lawlessness, and chaos in Fort Repose post-nuclear apocalypse. One of the novel's strong-points is the frantic, frighteningly realistic tone it adopts in the immediate aftermath of the first explosion. The varying reactions to the nuclear holocaust are quite well-done: we witness denial, fear, greed, anger, extreme depression, and madness set in to differing degrees across the formerly quiet Florida town. Frank's descriptive language has a unique, creative feel to it that is quite effective in solidifying memorable scenes as well; he can do action (the tense battle with the highwaymen), romance (Randy and Lib McGovern's night on the dock), and small-town drama (the novel's opening scene) all with zest. In fact, I got the sense, while reading Alas, Babylon, that it would make an excellent movie, with its relatable cast of characters and Hollywood-ready plot lines.
Although the plot was well-done and kept me turning the pages (especially the last hundred or so), I think that Alas, Babylon's underlying message will stick with me long after I have forgotten the minor characters and details of the plot. Upon finishing this novel, I was struck by an uplifting message of hope, bolstered by the twin pillars of hard work and perseverance, that is summoned by the story's closing scenes. Just because it's a post-apocalyptic novel doesn't mean it has to be dreary and morose! Frank seems to recognize this, and instead leaves his readers with a bit more optimism than other sections of the story might have provoked. I might add that while Randy Bragg was my favorite character, each main townsperson had some unique aspect of likability that made the novel more genuine and complex.
Although Alas, Babylon did not feel all that "science fictiony", I quite enjoyed it nonetheless. It is a classic of the genre, and I would especially recommend it to fans of post-apocalyptic literature or those who enjoy rich depictions of realistic characters and small-town life.

Bring the Jubilee:

"For the believer skepticism is essential. How else is he to know false gods from true except by doubting both?"
"It would be very nice if there were no drawbacks ever attached to the virtuous choice. Then the only ones who would elect to do wrong would be those of twisted minds, the perverse, the insane. Who would prefer the devious course if the straight one were just as easy? No, no, my dear Hodge; one cannot escape the responsibility for his choice simply because the other way means inconvenience or hardships or tribulation."
"We are too impressed with the pattern revealed to us --or which we think has been revealed to us --to remember that for the participants history is a haphazard affair, apparently aimless, produced by human beings whose concern is essentially with the trivial and irrelevant. The historian is always conscious of destiny. The participants rarely --or mistakenly."
Bring the Jubilee tends to be cited as one of the best alternate history novels ever written, along with The Man in the High Castle, Pavane, and Lest Darkness Fall. Despite this fact, I feel obliged to regard it as somewhat of a hidden gem; you won't see it in many bookstores, or, astonishingly, on very many "Best of SF" lists. As I delved further and further into this excellent novel, the level of injustice associated with these two facts increased more and more.
Bring the Jubilee truly is among the best that science fiction has to offer, and I would even go so far as to say that it is slightly superior to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Indeed, it is the best work of alternate history that I have read so far. Ward Moore's writing is technically excellent, clear, and filled with a remarkable, worldly, observant type of wisdom that one would expect from Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, not a lesser-known science fiction writer.
The novel is essentially the autobiography of Hodge Backmaker, a very relatable, likable young man who makes his way through the poverty-stricken villages and slums of the United States of America in search of a great education in history. The years of his life in focus are the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s, from his teenage life, to his maturation into a young man. The alternate history twist here in that the North lost the Civil War --and at the time period the novel is set in, the Confederate States have flourished, becoming a major world power, while the U.S.A has regressed into an insignificant, mostly uneducated backwater of a country, boasting only two reasonably modern cities: New York and Brooklyn. Hodge leaves his petty, impoverished existence in rural upstate New York to make something of himself in New York City. He runs into trouble of various degrees during his several years there, gaining wisdom from his experience and eventually joining a community of scholars in Pennsylvania to finally pursue his career as an historian.
Up until this point, Bring the Jubilee simply reads like an altered historical fiction novel; then, the shocking invention of a rudimentary time machine is introduced, and the novel takes a decidedly science fiction turn. In a way, Bring the Jubilee reminded me of Way Station in its combination of the antique (the Civil War time period) and the futuristic. The novel presents us with a problematically sad conclusion, which is chilling, melancholy, and powerfully emotional. I still don't quite know what to make of this ending, as it puts the entirety of the book, which I enjoyed so much, into a different perspective. To be sure, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but something that other readers will have to ponder for themselves.
A big reason why I liked Bring the Jubilee so much was its propensity for interesting philosophical discourse, on subjects such as the existence of god, free will, choice, the importance of time, history, and the relationship between the past and the present. Since I am more a fan of human-oriented, philosophical SF, rather than brazenly technical Hard SF, these diversions fascinated me.
Bring the Jubilee is a wise, puzzling, well-written gem of science fiction that I highly recommend to SF fans, Civil War enthusiasts,  or any reader with an open mind regarding science fiction. It truly is a travesty that such a phenomenal novel is so hard to find.

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