Tuesday, May 19, 2009

SHTF Fiction Review: "One Second After" by William Forstchen

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
- Jessamyn West
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
- Thomas Robert Malthus, "An essay on the principle of population"

One second after an unknown enemy detonates an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon high above the United States, civilization grinds to a halt. Cars drift to a stop on the highway, permanently stalled, their onboard computer systems fried. Cell phones are dead. The power goes out, taking with it climate control and refrigeration. Tractor trailers are abandoned on the highways of America, their shipments of food and medical supplies ransacked inside a day. Nearly every plane in flight across America spontaneously crashes, setting off fires that can't be put out because the fire trucks are inoperable. Hospital patients in the middle of surgery die as their ventilators and monitoring equipment power down. And because there is no communication with the outside world -- no television, email, or phone service -- no one knows what has happened or why.

The hero of this tale is John Matherson, retired Army Colonel and small-town history professor. John's knowledge of history gives him a unique and rare ability to place these catastrophic events in context, and to show the people of his town (and the reader) that America, heretofore the most privileged of nations, is not immune from experiencing the sort of grim Malthusian realities that have confronted other nations in times of crisis.

The story that unfolds details the heartbreaking choices that people are forced to make when there is no food, no medicine, no transportation, and no one has the skills to scratch a living from the earth. I give Mr. Forstchen a good deal of credit for not sanitizing the situation or allowing his characters to skirt painful issues. When your children are starving, should you shoot your beloved family pet and eat it? If there isn't enough food to go around, do you feed everyone equally and face total extinction within months, or do you allow the weak and useless to starve so that the strong and capable may survive? In answering these questions, the citizens of Black Mountain, North Carolina attempt not only to survive but to maintain their sense of decency, moral compass, and shared identity as Americans when circumstances dictate that it is every man for himself.

There's no question that factually, the book is meticulously researched and entirely plausible. A Congressional committee has been issuing reports on the threat to America from an EMP attack since 2001. As a work of fiction, "One Second After" is tightly plotted and engages the reader in the protagonists' struggle to survive. There are a few unfortunate moments when the dialogue between characters feels stilted; they make observations to each other that in reality most people would keep to themselves. John and his love interest, Makala, also tend to show a level of psychological insight and self-awareness that I believe few people possess. On the whole, however, the book is eminently readable. I can only hope it finds a broad audience.

This book may encourage those who read it to renew their conviction to prepare. But aside from spurring its audience on to greater levels of preparedness, I hope it will also prompt people to contact their Congressional representatives in the (perhaps vain) hope that in the midst of all the wasteful, ridiculous spending that is taking place today, some money can be allotted to mitigate the potential damages of such an attack.

"One Second After" is available for purchase from Amazon.com (hardcover edition - Kindle edition) and Barnes & Noble.


Anonymous said...

Great review of One Second After. I, too, believe that an EMP attack on the US is highly probable. I hear that an intense solar storm can cause a similar effect as an EMP detonation but has the capacity to affect a much larger radius. Reading books like these are a true call to action. I hope people start listening instead of assuming that they can just come on over. http://tinyurl.com/onan6z

lynnaea said...

Yup, a solar storm of sufficient magnitude would have similar effects. It's called a coronal mass ejection or "Carrington Event." I posted on it here: