One Second After by Forstchen, William R., 2009

One Second After by Forstchen, William R. - Book cover from

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(W)e dream of America. We want America to come to us. But I think it never will. The America we knew died when those warheads burst. If so, then it is up to us to not wait, but instead to rebuild America as we want it to be.

It is not often that I read mass-market thrillers, and even less often that I bother to review them here. However, based on a co-worker's recommendation I recently completed William R. Forstchen's cautionary catastrophe novel called One Second After. This is my first Forstchen novel, but based on a quick scan of his back catalog he seems to specialize in rewriting the novels of other genre writers as mass market, blockbuster type novels. This one was eerily reminiscent of S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire and pat Frank's Alas Babylon. What Forstchen brought in One Second After was a focus on modern American values (present in Alas Babylon, but dated and somewhat trite) and subtle propaganda for modern Christian values. His descriptions of the human misery and violence that would follow a nationwide EMP burst were a little more realistic - and certainly a bit grittier - then Stirling's, though for those of you who care, that is a debate that could rage for a long time. So, highly derivative and punctuated by awful writing such as above, but realistic to a degree, I give One Second After a fair to middling grade.

One Second After, as noted above, is about a mysterious EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that took out all of the unhardened electronics in the continental United States and select parts of the rest of the world. For those two or three of you out that who still have no idea what an EMP blast is, it is the result of a high altitude atomic or nuclear explosion. The amount of energy released into the atmosphere upon such an explosion has the effect of destroying all technology more modern then solid state. Devices that do not use computers or rely on vacuum tubes, such as radios manufactured before the 1970s and automobiles built after the 1980s, simply cease to function, unless they are protected, or "hardened" against such an attack. This type of detonation occurs so high up, though, that no fallout or blast can be felt on the Earth. Eeverything just stops working, which is exactly what happened here. None of the characters saw or felt anything, but the lights went out, cars just stopped moving, refrigerators stopped running - everything just stopped and never came back on.

The plot of Forstchen's story takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through one year of existence for a small North Carolina community after such a detonation. Ill prepared at the start, and set back by serial calamities. the ten-thousand or so residents - including those trapped on the interstate when their cars stopped running - did the best they could to preserve order and hoard and ration resources for the community while fighting off rievers and barbarians which with increasing sophistication and regularity ran up against the town's defenses. The climax of the book details a bloody war of attrition between the residents of Black Mountain and a Satan worshipping hoard of cannibal barbarians that thought - wrongly, it would seem - that Black Rock would be a pushover. In fact the town had an organized and well disciplined militia of students from a local Christian college.

One of the weakest elements of One Second After was that of character. The main character, John Matherson, a retired Colonel and lecturer at the local Christian College, represented the spirit of Black Mountain. From word one he was made to be sympathetic and lovable: His wife was dead a few years of cancer. He gave up his chance at a general's first star to care for her in Black Mountain, her home town. He was a single father with twelve and sixteen year old daughters. His mother-in-law hated him at first (why, we never learn) but had grown to love him in an outwardly tolerant but inwardly warm way. His youngest daughter, Jennifer, was a Type I diabetic, and his eldest had just settled on her first boyfriend, a respectful, wide-eyed rube named Ben. Because of his military training (and his status in the town) John was respected and listened to. After the EMP blast he was accepted into the local government as an adviser, where he saved the town again and again. Upon his advice he got the town to centralize resources including livestock, pharmaceuticals, water and medication, set up a defense, saw to the training of a militia. In later chapters he became the willing executioner of looters, and eventually the leader of the town, after all those above him were killed in battle or died of natural causes. But despite the fact that he was willing to step up and do all of the unsavory jobs, like shooting looters, his greatest value to the town seemed to be his oratory skills. When things seemed to take a turn for the worse, John was always there with words of encouragement about those erstwhile American values that they were protecting, never mind the fact that America no longer existed. Despite all his uses - the text was somewhat didactic - John never morphed into anything new. Under his leadership the town of Black Mountain went through some horrible turmoil, but remained the American town of Black Mountain all the way through. In fact, John's two biggest shocks - the two things that he just could not get his head around despite all the murdering, starvation and cannibalism that was going on around him - was the fact that he had to kill his dogs to survive, and that his oldest daughter got pregnant. Oh the shame of it all!

Though its difficult to pinpoint the reasons why, I think that this book is a reaction to the liberalism that the author (or perhaps only the audience; I never found Forstchen that convincing) sees as eating its way into the heart of America.

"Some of our profs might think I've sold this college to the community, but the hell with them. I know a college nearby, one that put out a lot of majors in peace studies, and if there was a protest anywhere against our military, they'd show; it was almost required. If an army recruiter ever showed up there, they'd get mobbed, all in the name of a peace course. Can you imagine you or me ever getting a job there? Diversity worked for them only as long as you toed the line with their views, and now the whirlwind is upon us." He sniffed derisively. "They'll never make it now. I bet on that campus, today, they're sitting around like the French nobles did at Versailles even as the mob swarmed over the gates. I bet they're singing 'Give Peace a Chance,' even as they starve to death.

This type of language represented a sudden change in the tenor of the book. At first the book is all about holding together. Then suddenly Forstchen adopts an exclusionary tone where the characters all find it easy to say "we don't need those types around here." It wasn't jarring, but it was a bit surprising. One Second After is not going to achieve high status when compared with its peers, but it will sell a lot of paperback copies. Get this one for a long flight.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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