Last October, impending nuclear war was dominating the national news, so I organized a group of eight retired English teachers to read Alas, Babylon, an upbeat dystopian novel about life in central Florida after the Bomb.
The plan was actually for us to read three novels–two dystopian and one utopian. We began with H. G. Wells’s short novel The Time Machine (1895) to consider the author’s Fabian socialist political arguments as he dramatized them by depicting how human culture could develop thousands of years from now with a dependent group of Eloi living carefree lives above ground while living off the Morlocks who work underground. Wells worried that continued oppression of workers would lead to a dependent leisure class which would eventually be brutalized by the oppressed. Our discussions included Wells’s notions of evolution, social Darwinism, politics, and economics. We also read the deleted chapter, “The Grey Man,” which editor William Ernest Henley had “interpolated” into the serialized initial printing of Wells’s novel. Henley’s ostensible goal was to add a scene of the “ultimate degeneracy” of humankind. Wells, however, deleted this from the later book edition.
After The Time Machine our group discussed Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887, one the top-selling books of nineteenth America, which was the impetus of the Bellamyite Movement with hundreds of progressive-utopian socialist political clubs (Bellamy Clubs) from Massachusetts to California. This novel apparently outsold all other American novels of the 1800’s except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. Our group agreed that Bellamy’s novel of ideas sometimes seems labored as the dialogue explains in-depth how social values can improve society, but the topic is timely today; and the novel opened the conversation to political discussion that was elevated above the combative election-focused politics we always hear in the news.
For the final two Fridays our group enjoyed the optimism of Pat Frank’s after-the-bomb novel, Alas, Babylon (1959) which is set within an hour’s drive from us. We noted the cinematic quality of this novel and how the characters became real for us. Some of us agreed that several times when we were not reading the novel we would feel eerily that what we were experiencing at the moment was the same as if we were in the novel; for example, a jet would fly over, and we would “be” in a moment in the novel, as if the novel were what was actually happening in the world and not just in a book. Our discussions ranged from the novel itself to our experiences with fallout shelters in the 1960s and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as we lived it in Central Florida in October 1962. All of us became caught up in this novel, and we were sorry to have it end.
(If you live near Ormond Beach and think you would like to join a future group, e-mail me at email@example.com.)