Dystopian fiction is all the rage with kids today – both in print and at the movies. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, all that noise.
(I’ll do us all a favor and not get into how weak those movies really are – and other than The Giver, how unbelievably weak and derivative their source material is. You want to watch a great dystopian flick? Check out Children of Men or Soylent Green. Plus there is no better dystopian novel than 1984. Period.)
All that aside, I think dystopian fiction is popular because we don’t see those situations and the people that rise above them as reflective of our own lives. We’re unable to think that our world would be divided up into districts, each of which is required to send one boy and one girl to fight to the death in a special arena in order to determine which of us eats well next year. It’s pure, unadulterated fantasy.
If that’s why you enjoy dystopian fiction, then you absolutely should not read William Forstchen’s One Second After, because it is absolutely not that kind of dystopia. Only read this book if you’re ready to face some hard truths about the nature of humanity and what happens to people when everything around them goes straight to hell.
(By the way, you can skip Newt Gingrich’s foreword. It adds nothing to the credibility of the author and comes across as cloying and pedantic. Worst part of the book. The afterword by Bill Sanders is fantastic, though.)
Our hero, John, is a former Army colonel who has retired from the hectic life of rising through the ranks, left the hustle and bustle of command, and headed for the hills of western North Carolina. He chooses his family over his career, a choice which immediately endears him to us and pulls us into a place where we inherently trust him. We know right away that he prioritizes his kids over his job, even though his new, post-Army job is a cushy tenured professorship teaching history at a tiny (>600 student) Christian college a few miles east of Asheville.
It’s his youngest daughter’s birthday as the story opens, and we get to the meat of it quickly – in a split second, all the power goes out and everything with modern electronics dies a silent, irrevocable death. Since I read the back of the book before reading the inside of it, I already knew that the cause of the power outage was an EMP, so I wasn’t surprised by that. You knew it was going to happen because the first chapter is titled “Day 1.”
If you don’t know, EMP stands for Electro-Magnetic Pulse.
(Don’t say “EMP burst.” That’s like saying “ATM machine.” Pulse is another word for burst in this context.)
An EMP is a side effect of a nuclear explosion, and this side effect fries everything electronic in sight. It results from an extremely powerful burst of gamma radiation originating from the detonation site. Draw a straight line from the detonation point out in every direction, and if that line touches something electronic, that bit of electronics is fried. The only electronics that survive are items that are “hardened,” or specially prepared to resist this specific burst of radiation, and items that are otherwise (luckily) shielded – perhaps behind or under many inches of concrete or something like that. If you take that detonation and put it up in the sky, then that line-of-sight effect is expanded, and even more so the farther up in the air you do it. This is the basic premise of the book – that some enemy of the United States (we never really find out who) sets off a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere over the USA, frying EVERYTHING.
Well, nearly everything. While John may be our hero, his hero is a 1949 Edsel that’s too old to be affected by the EMP and runs throughout the book.
Needless to say, the EMP takes out pretty much everything, sending the community of Black Mountain, NC (a suburb of sorts of Asheville) into the Stone Age. They say (in the course of the book) that they’ve gone back to Medieval times, but I think that’s being generous. In Medieval times, those people knew how to cope with their environment. What the residents of Black Mountain are faced with is more like being dropped on an alien planet. They’re simply not equipped to handle their new lives, and things go downhill very, very quickly.
John’s family follows some predictable patterns. His mother-in-law, Jen, is tough as nails, but her husband, Tyler, is riddled with late-stage cancer and suffering in a nearby nursing home. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is 16 and unequipped to handle the end of civilization; once Forstchen starts John to worrying about her relationship with her 17-year-old boyfriend Ben, you know how that plot line is going to end (it is, sadly, the most predictable part of the story – the upside, though, is it’s one of the few predictable parts of the story). His younger daughter, Jennifer, has Type 1 diabetes, and as the pharmacy infrastructure breaks down soon after the electrical one dies, you know her demise is a matter of when, not if. That’s the only spoiler I’ll lay down, because it’s not really a spoiler, you just don’t ever want to face that reality, even when John is screaming into the phone at an Asheville doctor who refuses to give up a tiny slice of his critical supply of insulin.
The Asheville doctor, after all, realizes that Jennifer’s death is an inevitability. The EMP has destroyed civilization as they know it, and at that moment towards the end of the book – about four months after the EMP – it’s quite possible that Jennifer is the last Type 1 diabetic alive in the region. Every other T1D has already died, and the only reason Jennifer is still alive is because John bullied a scared pharmacist into giving him a supply of insulin that slowly goes bad without constant refrigeration.
Jennifer, however, is not the only lamb sacrificed in the wake of civilization’s collapse, and this is the main point of Forstchen’s book. We are not prepared to handle being cut off from everything modern living affords us – food (which will run out way faster than you think it will), information (which, even when it’s very bad news, allays fear and promotes hope), and medicine. Imagine everybody with high blood pressure or schizophrenia running out of their medication. EVERYBODY. All the medical conditions we manage with pills, within a few weeks, become a very real problem.
The climax of the story is a battle between a large, aggressive Satanic cult called The Posse and the Black Mountain Rangers, the militia – mostly made up of the young adult men and women attending the college – led by Colonel John, US Army, retired, and his former USMC drill instructor, Sergeant Washington. What Forstchen does, though, is (if you ask me) nearly brilliant. It would be easy to throw down a blow-by-blow accounting of the battle, looking at every enfilade and defilade, discussing every death in detail, but Forstchen doesn’t do that. We know the battle is coming, and he skips 95% of it, dropping us in as the battle ends and the survivors deal with the dead and wounded. It fits in with the general theme of the book, surviving the tragedy and trying desperately to hold civilization together as a survival exercise.
The reality of just how many people would die in 2 weeks, a month, a year after everything shut down – just from medical problems and starvation – is well portrayed in the book, and it’s entirely disheartening. Now you have to remember that we all have guns, and as civilization deteriorates, the have nots will quickly grow desperate enough to try to get at what the haves are holding onto.
One Second After, then, is not a book about a nuclear holocaust. It’s a book about a humanity holocaust, and it’s a good book to boot. I started reading it at about 4 pm after work and literally could not put it down until I finished it about 7 hours later. It’s not an easy book to read from a subject standpoint, but it is well written and flows easily. Calling it a “page turner” would be a little cliche, but I seriously had to finish it in one sitting. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep if I didn’t find out who lived, who died, and how long it took for relief to arrive.
OK – one more spoiler. Relief does arrive, but it takes way longer than anybody thought it would, and for the vast majority of the Black Mountain community, it’s too late when it does show up in the form of a column of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and regular Army troops.