Forge Books, 2009, 352 pages
In a small North Carolina town, one man struggles to save his family after America loses a war that will send it back to the Dark Ages.
Already cited on the floor of Congress and discussed in the corridors of the Pentagon as a book all Americans should read, One Second After is the story of a war scenario that could become all too terrifyingly real. Based upon a real weapon - the Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) - which may already be in the hands of our enemies, it is a truly realistic look at the awesome power of a weapon that can destroy the entire United States, literally within one second.
This book, set in a typical American town, is a dire warning of what might be our future and our end.
As much as I like post-apocalyptic novels, zombies, aliens, and supernatural horrors are entertaining but not scary, because we know those type of end-of-the-world scenarios are not going to happen.
I'm Newt Gingrich, and I approve this novel.
One Second After manages to be scary because it sounds very plausible. In fact, William Fortschen supposedly wrote this book in part to warn Americans about a threat he believes has been overlooked and ignored — hence the foreword by Newt Gingrich and the afterword by a military officer, both warning that "HEY, THIS SHIT IS REAL, YO!"
The apocalyptic scenario is an Electromagnetic Pulse. In this book, there are actually three EMP weapons detonated — one takes out the U.S. and Canada, another takes out Japan and South Korea, and a third takes out Russia. They never do find out for sure who launched them, though the obvious suspects — China, North Korea, a jihadi network — are all suggested.
EMPs of course are well-known side effects of atomic bombs. Is it possible that one well-placed missile, launched from a container ship in the Atlantic to detonate high in the atmosphere over North America, could fry most electronics in the U.S. and thus cause a breakdown in civilization in a matter of weeks? I am not quite convinced on that score, but it's one of the TEOTWAWKI scenarios that keeps certain breeds of survivalists and politicians awake at night. Fortschen's concern is that the U.S. government has taken virtually no steps to harden critical electrical and electronic infrastructure. The reason is that like so many preventative measures, it would cost a lot of money to protect against what most see as a remote, hypothetical threat.
Well, everyone has their hobby horse. But ignore the EMP as the delivery mechanism. There are other scenarios that might cause a SHTF event. And if something happens to disrupt electricity, food, and water, for days, weeks, or months, it will get very, very ugly, and that's the more convincing message this book gets across.
The main character, John Matherson, is a history professor and former Army officer. Despite having almost been promoted to general, his military career was largely that of a desk jockey. He is a widower living in a small town in North Carolina with two daughters and two dogs.
Then the EMP goes off. Instantly, virtually every vehicle, generator, and electronic device is dead. It takes them a few hours to realize it's not just a power failure (despite the puzzling fact that cars stalled on the highway), a day to realize it's serious, and a few more days to realize that the S has indeed HTF.
The rest of the book is a survival story. Matherson becomes a leader in their small town. First they have to deal with routine problems, very inconvenient and occasionally life-threatening (such as the fact that his daughter is a Type 1 diabetic who's going to die when the insulin runs out). As the refugees start pouring in, and it becomes evident how very unprepared they are, things get progressively worse, and worse, and worse.
By the climax, in which Matherson has trained a bunch of high school and college kids into a militia which is the only thing standing against a barbarian horde known as "the Posse," they've already lost most of their population to starvation and disease. They've had to implement rationing, shoot looters and hoarders, eat their pets, perform surgery without anesthetics or antibiotics, and make hard decisions about who they're going to let starve to death.
I found this to be a compelling read because the author didn't take any dramatic artistic licenses. I don't think everything would play out exactly as described in this novel — it might be worse, it might be not quite as bad (I do think the U.S. population being reduced to 30 million in one year is unlikely) — but other than the EMP scenario described as the precipitating event, nothing that followed seemed implausible.
One Second After is a book to get you thinking. There are a lot of things that can disrupt modern civilization for varying lengths of time. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed just how bad things can get for people who are unprepared, and that was localized and everyone knew order and services would be restored eventually. What would you do if the power shut off right now and the trucks bringing food to the grocery store stopped running, and never resumed? If you are like most people, you'd be screwed in short order.
While not a "prepper" in any serious way, I have actually started taking this shit a little more seriously lately. You know, just in case. There are different levels of events you can prepare yourself for. Three days without power. A week without being able to leave your house. A month without electricity, running water, or food. The complete collapse of civilization. Most people cannot do much to prepare for the latter, and I live too close to what would be ground zero of any TEOTWAWKI scenario to think I'd have a chance of escaping to some rural redoubt. However, I do have enough food, water, and emergency supplies to "shelter in place" for a while. And I'm an NRA member. You know... in case of zombies.
Even if you are not seized with an impulse to go out and buy guns and 10# cans of beans, though, One Second After is a realistic novel that might inspire you to start thinking realistically. Just in case.
Verdict: A realistic, zombie-free apocalyptic novel that will make preppers happy and non-preppers nervous. While not a great work of literature by any means, I found One Second After to be quite a page-turner, and the sort of book that might do what the author wants and make people think. Of course the author wants you to think about electromagnetic pulse bombs taking down the grid forever, but if you think about stocking an emergency kit instead, I say mission accomplished.
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