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Two years ago, the Soviet Union demonstrated the ability to lob an H-bomb across the globe. Overnight, it was clear that anywhere on the planet could be destroyed with just 15 minutes' notice, if that. This year, the United States will base Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in Europe within range of the Soviet Union, and the Russians will feel that same Sword of Damocles. Never mind that America's Strategic Air Command has more bombers now than ever, and one can be fairly certain that the Soviet counterpart is at a historical high, as well.

Civilization could all come crashing down at a moment's notice. It's a reality we've lived with since that first artificial sun blossomed over the desert of New Mexico, but it's never been closer, more tangible.

An atomic holocaust has been the subject of numerous novels and short stories since the late 1940's, but until this year, there had not been a grittily realistic portrayal of a nuclear exchange and the subsequent struggle for survival.



Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon was released just two months ago, and it has already caused a well-deserved stir. It is, quite simply, sublime. With its strong grasp of the technology of the nuclear war machine, its savvy of human interactions in a post-apocalyptic setting, and its unadorned yet somehow gentle depictions of the well-drawn characters, it is a one-sitting page turner.

In brief: Randy Bragg is a dilletante resident of the sleepy resort and fishing town of Fort Repose, Florida. After an abortive flirtation with politics (his defeat attributable to his soft line on segregation), he lives a rather aimless life. His brother, Mark, is a senior intelligence officer at America's missile command center in Cheyenne Mountain. The book opens on December 3, 1959, with the two world Superpowers on the brink of war. Mark warns Randy that war is imminent and sends his family (wife, two children) to live in Fort Repose.

And not a moment too soon. Within six hours of Helen, Ben Franklin, and Peyton's arrival, Florida and the rest of the nation are hit with several bombs, knocking out first communications and then electricity. Within a day, Fort Repose is reduced to a pre-Industrial oasis in a radioactive hell.

Randy quickly becomes the leader of his local group, which includes not just him and his brother's family, but his strong, liberated girlfriend, Elizabeth, her parents, Randy's black gardener and maid, the maid's husband, a young doctor, Dan Gunn, and a retired Admiral, Sam Hazzard. Together, they become the hope of Fort Repose, assuring its shaky survival over the course of the year after the attack.

Pat Frank sets the stage with care and a nail-biting sense of inexorability; the bombs don't fall until page 91, after we have become intimately familiar with most of the book's protagonists. The hurdles that the residents of Fort Repose must overcome are plausible. The solutions are reasonable. The ending is bittersweet, but tinged with a little hope, and perhaps the best that could be expected.

What impresses me the most about this book is its liberal character. There are several strong woman characters (Helen; Elizabeth; Peyton; Randy's ex-girlfriend, Rita; the town telegrapher, Florence; the town librarian, Alice; Missouri, the maid), and the book is a strong indictment of racial prejudice, along with the legal practices stemming therefrom. It is a book about the triumph of human spirit, as exemplified by all of the species' members.

Is that a strong-enough recommendation? Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstand and get yourself a copy.

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Last time on this station, I informed all of you that Part 2 of this (last) month's Fantasy & Science Fiction review would have to wait since I'd wanted to get through the Poul Anderson novelette before reporting.

Well, I'm glad I did. Damn that Anderson, anyway. How dare he write a good story! Now I can't justify skipping him. But more on that later.

Of Time and Cats by Howard Fast, who normally doesn't dip his toe in the science fiction pool, is a fun tale of the multiplicity that ensues when time travel is involved. A slick, paradoxical story.

Algis Budrys has another winner with The Distant Sound of Engines about impending death and the urgent need to impart a lifetime's accumulated wisdom before final departure. Sad. Good.

Avram Davidson's The Certificate is dystopic in the extreme, and probably inspired by the recent Holocaust. A subjugated humanity is reduced to bitter slave labor. The only "gift" from their new overlords is perfect health. How does one escape?



I liked Three Dimensional Valentine by Stuart Palmer (who had a story in the very first F&SF) quite a lot. It is fun and frivolous and rather old-fashioned. It is also unexpected. The author has given me permission to distribute this one, but I haven't quite received it in the mails yet. I'll let you know when I do.

And now to Poul Anderson's The Sky People. As you know, I always approach Anderson with trepidation. Apart from the amazing Brainwave, his work is generally turgid, and I don't like his manly men and absent women.

This one was different. There is still plenty of swashbuckling in this post-apocalyptic tale, but it is done in the style and with the flaire of a good pirate movie like Black Swan. It is set in old San Antone, in the heart of the decaying "Meycan" Empire, south of Tekas and north of S'america. Their technology and mindset is mired in the 16th century. The eponymous "Sky People" are dirigible-driving corsairs from the Kingdom of "Canyon." Though rapacious and ruthless, they possess a greater technology than their target--the Meycans. Unfortunately for them, the timing of their attack proves to be inauspicious as it coincides with the arrival of a delegation from the Federation, successors to the Polynesian nations of Oceania.



Told by three viewpoint characters, one Polynesian, one sky pirate, and one Meycan (a woman!), it is really quite good. Not only has Anderson managed to convincingly portray a wide variety of cultures, he has done a fine job of projecting recovery from an atomic catastrophe in a world that has used up most of its natural resources. I don't know if Anderson has written other stories in this universe or if he intends to, but I would enjoy reading more.

The final story is Alfred Bester's Will You Wait?. The deal with the Devil story has been just about done to death, but this is an infernally cute story about how the modern way of business has made the process Hell on Earth.

Gosh, where does that leave us for the issue? 4 stars? 4 and a half? Definitely a good read worth picking up--if there are any left on the stands, that is.

See you on the 12th!





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It has been two minutes to midnight since 1953.



According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, we have been teetering at the brink of nuclear destruction since the Soviets detonated their first H-Bomb. Now that both East and West have demonstrated the ability to launch, without warning and without possibility of resistance, H-bomb-carrying missiles from one hemisphere to the other, I will not be surprised if the FAS ticks the clock one minute closer to midnight.

It is thus no surprise that post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre coming into full flower. On the Beach, a pessimistic look at the aftermath set in Australia, came out in 1957, and it was a strong seller.

One of last year's crop was Horace Coon's 43,000 Years After, which tells the tale of an alien archaeological expedition to Earth 43,000 years after humanity has exterminated itself and all vertebrate land life by nuclear hellfire. Coon is not, by trade, a science fiction author. He writes social how-to books and satirical social commentary. It's actually a good background for someone writing a book of this type.



The best satire holds a mirror to its subject to point up its absurdities. Coon does this in 43,000 by letting humanity's writings and edifices, most made for public consumption rather than posterity, be our race's only method of communicating with the archaeologists, humanity having rendered itself otherwise quite mute.

And what did we leave behind? Most of our cities have been smashed, and the remains have not aged well over 43 millennia. It is clear to the future observers that we did have large transportation networks, that we did have knowledge of the H-bomb, and that such weapons were employed universally (though the aliens are somehow able to deduce which had been fired by the West and which by the East). Some statues survive, and the aliens are aided by a limited sense of telepathy that enables to them to puzzle out mysteries that might otherwise be unsolvable (the last is a hand-wave, but scientific rigor is not the point of the book).

The real breakthrough comes when the expedition finds a time capsule buried in 1938 in conjunction with the World Expo. The capsule provides a wealth of written and physical detail, particularly the Almanac and Sears Roebuck Catalogs. The expedition also finds scattered records on stone and surviving microfilm, but they (conveniently) end in the 1950s, ten years before the determined date of the holocaust.

The findings of the archaeologists are conveyed through the personal musings of each of the three expedition directors: dogmatic and dictatorial Zolgus, thoughtful and scientific Yundi, philosophical and emotional Xia. Each is heavily influenced by his/her prejudices. Zolgus, for instance, cannot help but denigrate humanity for its failings: employing agriculture, failing to fix the planet's axis, failing to embrace a world dictatorship, eschewing renewable energy sources. Zolgus acknowledges briefly that his own race had its savage time, but he refuses to pardon Earth's growing pains, describing us universally as "stupid." Unfair? Perhaps, but an attitude that the richer nations of Earth frequently adopt toward the more "backward" nations of the world. Or by the rich toward the poor (i.e. "I got mine; why ain't you got yours yet?")

Yundi is more respectful, but relying solely on empirical data, he has the most trouble understanding humanity's self-destructive urges. Xia is willing to be charitable. She unabashedly falls in love with the Earth and its erstwhile inhabitants. She recognizes and forgives our self-destructive urges, only lamenting that they came to such an unhappy fruition.

We do not learn much about the aliens except that which can be gleaned from their own reflections--they must be roughly humanoid, but they have no teeth and six digits on each appendage. They do not crowd all of their sensory organs into their head. They have a Communist-style dictatorship and vast technologies and access to energy. They do not self-perpetuate or have families, but rather artificially grow their young so as to completely liberate both sexes. Coming to Earth reinforces the wisdom of these practices for Zolgus, but creates doubts regarding them in the other two, especially Xia.

Ultimately, the questions the expedition asks are "why did humanity kill itself, and was it inevitable?" In answering these questions, Coon tells the readers (through his characters) how to possibly avert the potential tragedy. Coon also creates a secondary cautionary tale in the form of Zolgus, depicting in a negative light the phenomenon of technological dehumanization.

Of course, such a book runs the risk of being a colossal bore of philosophical posturing. In fact, the book is rather short (just 143 pages), and quite well written. The characters, while probably not alien enough, are engaging, and each have their own well-developed tone. As a story, the plot could have been served better with more focus on the archaeological sleuthing; the archaeologists come to their conclusions a bit too quickly. But, again, that's not really the point.

So give the book a read. You may or may not come away with any profound shifts in your thinking, but you won't have wasted the few hours it takes to complete the novel.

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