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30 March 2012

“Pat Frank” was the lifelong nickname adopted by the American writer, newspaperman, and government consultant, Harry Hart Frank (born in Chicago May 5, 1908 and died October 12, 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, age 57, of acute pancreatitis. However he packed a lot into his 57 years. Frank spent years as a journalist and information handler for several newspapers, agencies, and government bureaus and his subsequent fiction and non-fiction work made excellent use of his years of experience observing government and military bureaucracy and its assorted foul-ups. He saw service overseas during WW11, when he worked for the Office of War Information and was a war correspondent in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Turkey.
Frank is primarily known for his post-holocaust book, Alas Babylon, and after the huge success of that he concentrated on writing articles for magazines and advising assorted Government bodies. In 1961, the year in which he received an American Heritage Foundation Award, he was consultant to the National Aeronautics and Space Council and from 1963 the Department of Defense made use of Frank’s expert advice right up until the time of his death..
Frank wrote Alas Babylon while living in Tangerine, Florida on Lake Beauclaire near Mount Dora. Another author who knew Frank then and was familiar with local history, said that “Pistolville,” the name Frank gave to an area near (the mythical) Fort Repose in the novel, was in fact a place just between the southern edge of Mount Dora to the north and Tangerine to the south. According to Vivian Owens, Mount Dora was intended by Frank to be the model for his semi-fictional Fort Repose. While writing this particular item for the series I happened to check Amazon and saw that Alas Babylon had over 300 reviews. Even after so long the work still stacks up for readers as it always has for me. I don’t quite know what it is about the book, perhaps it’s that it is set in a small rural town from which background it never departs. Perhaps because it shows people more at their best than their worst when the worst happens. There are a few jarring notes. Remember when the book was written segregation was still in force, and some people still used pejoratives about black Americans. But Frank’s story denies that in its own way as he shows that the people of Fort Repose, when a huge disaster befalls them, are able to ignore such prejudice and work together.
Alas Babylon is set in the mythical small town of Fort Repose in central Florida. From the context I would estimate the town population to be around 3,000. Randy and Mark Bragg are the sons of an old founding family from the area. Mark is in Air Force Intelligence while Randy lives in the family’s old house and is something of a layabout. Then he receives a telegram to tell him that Mark’s wife and children are on the way to stay with him and using the code words Alas Babylon to tell him that it is almost certain nuclear war is about to break out. Randy meets Mark at an Air Force base when his plane stops briefly, and is given a check for $5000 (a very large sum in the 1950s.) He begins buying items he thinks will be of use as his brother has suggested, Helen, (Mark’s wife) and the children Peyton and Ben arrive and settle in for the night. Randy is woken by his bed shaking hours later, as a growing thunder booms around him. Fort Repose is untouched but major cities all over Florida (and the rest of the United States) have been obliterated, and survival is now the issue. The story is in one way predictable, but there are clever, well-written and wholly believable twists and turns, and I heartily appreciated one of those when two middle-aged maiden ladies become the mainstay of Fort Repose, the town librarian and the lady who runs the Western Union Office.
I (and a large number of other readers) would recommend Alas Babylon, but a reader might also be mildly repaid by the reading of Mr. Adam, (after a nuclear plant explodes every man is sterile save for one Homer Adam -who was a mile deep down a iron mine at the time. This is more a humorous attack on bureaucratic stupidity and interservice rivalry than true SF.) And perhaps An Affair of State, which is an acid look at men in government and those of them who shape America’s Foreign Policy.

NOVELS:
An Affair of State (1948)
Mr. Adam (1946) adapted as a play and performed in 1949
Hold Back the Night (1952)
Forbidden Area 1956 (aka Seven Days to Never – London 1957) This book is not quite SF but it is an excellent read none-the-less and I recommend it.
Alas Babylon 1959 (A TV version was broadcast on Playhouse 90 in 1960, and this was adapted as a play in 1963.)

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