Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review, One Second After, by William Fortschen

A lot of energy has been expended in the last decade discussing—and arguing—about how best to defend our nation against attack from unknown threats.  September 11th changed the way a lot of Americans thought about not only our security, but about our uniquely “American” lifestyle, and how it plays to the rest of the world.  Some of the more radical have suggested that our pampered, affluent existence contributed to the sentiment behind the attacks, a few even suggesting that we deserved it.
 William Forstchen’s One Second After, while clearly told from a very conservative and classically patriotic viewpoint, tends ironically to reinforce those views.  The book is a work of speculative fiction, examining the aftermath of a massive and sudden EMP attack on the United States in the present day.  Set in Black Mountain, NC, a small exurb of Asheville, the book’s central character and sole point of view is John Matherson, ex-Army colonel and professor of history at the tiny Christian college in the town.  His life is bucolic and uneventful, though touched with melancholy over the death of his wife some years before and the ongoing struggles of his younger daughter Jennifer, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes.  
 It is during Jennifer’s 12th birthday party that the disaster occurs, though no one will fully realize it for some time.  Initially considered just an annoying power outage, signs that something larger has happened begin to trickle into John’s consciousness:  every car on the freeway has stopped in place; there are no contrails in a sky normally crisscrossed by air traffic; several mysterious fires burn on distant mountainsides.  Most worrisome of all, no radio broadcasts can be heard, even on an ancient Ford Edsel radio.
Matherson, remembering some of the research he’d participated in as a professor at the Army War College, begins to suspect we’ve been the target of an “asymmetric strike.”  Gradually the townspeople begin to realize that something terrible has happened, and things begin to turn much darker.
And darker. 
And, oh GOD, even darker.
Listen, if you’re a person who likes to sleep soundly and worry-free at night, just…just don’t read this book.  I’m not going to go into details about events in the book, because I’m not a spoiler reviewer.  But suffice to say that living in our society after the lights—and 99.9% of all vehicular transportation, and communications, and any semblance of sustainable modern medicine—have gone out is not pleasant or leisurely.  The world rediscovers the Dark Ages, and fast.  Like within weeks.  The consequences of the attack and its impact on society are dire and coldly logical in their conclusions.  Perhaps pessimistic, but to my mind not implausible.
As readability goes, One Second After is really quite good, if a little clunky and prone to data dumps.  A tendency to over-explain jokes and characters’ penchant for launching into long, improbably well thought-out monologues runs through the novel from beginning to end.  However, Forstchen focuses narrowly on one place and set of primary characters, which moves the story along briskly and is seldom disorienting.  He thus avoids a trap many post-apocalyptic novels tend to fall into by trying to tell the entire story of a global disaster.  The devastating impact of the event is felt at the local level—much like every single other thing in the country from now on, because globalization dies the instant the EMP strikes. 
Unfortunately, there is a big downfall, and it is one of message.  Forstchen, through Matherson and several other “realist” characters, repeatedly makes the point that the current generation is “the most pampered in our nation’s history,” citing such softening factors as cheap and easily accessible drinking water, widely-prescribed antidepressants, and ADD-inducing electronic devices.  No one seemed to realize these were so ingrained in our culture until faced with the reality that they were suddenly and permanently gone.  While this is certainly true enough, the same characters, sometimes in the same breath, also complain a lot about how the nation turned a blind eye to the risks involved in living such a life, until it was too late to do anything about it. 
This criticism is frustrating, because none of the characters, even the knowledge-font Matherson, offers any real preventative solutions that could have been taken.  Some vague discussion of “hardened” devices in use by the military is bandied about, but very little else.  Instead, the novel tends to mistily glorify the pre-solid state technology of the Greatest Generation—hardly a real option for most of us.  The novel is meant to be a warning for us to do something before it’s too late, but what?  Without offering possible solutions, Forstchen ends up sounding a bit like Abe Simpson, shaking his fist at the whippersnappers on his lawn, who should be using rotary telephones and medicating with bourbon, like in his day.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

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