Thursday, August 20, 2009

"One Second After" William R. Forstchen

U.S. Army Colonel John Matherson is offered a general's star if he will accept assignment to a NATO post in Europe. But his wife Mary is ill with cancer, and he declines the commission, moving instead with her and their two daughters to her Christian-college hometown in the back woods of North Carolina. There he accepts a teaching position and adapts to a life very different from that of his Newark, NJ childhood. Then, one fine spring day, not only do the lights go out, but cellphones and car transmissions die and electronic devices of all kinds cease to function.

William R Forstchen's One Second After is a post-apocalyptic tale in the tradition of Lucifer's Hammer and Alas, Babylon. It tells the gripping story of survival in America after an EMP attack cripples the US. A threat known since the sixties, an Electromagnetic Pulse attack can be made using as little as just one small nuclear device set off high above the atmosphere. The high-voltage flux thus generated will fry any non-hardened electronics within the line of sight. The damage would be virtually complete and all but irreversible. In the first minute alone more than half a million people would die as their planes fell paralyzed from the sky. They, as the cliché goes, would be the lucky ones.

The story is fluidly written, and the plot grips you. The work is both realistic in its portrayal of how people react to disaster and romantic in portraying heroic people who identify their values and then struggle to maintain them. I finished this book in two eager late-bedtime readings. My throat tightened with emotion a few times. The book does have a few minor drawbacks, there is too much exposition as opposed to dramatization. Forstchen often relates the story after the fact rather than describing it in real time. And the repeated use of the expression "should of" instead of "should've" which was meant to convey local dialect seems more like a spelling error than a colorful regionalism. But if a story like this one chokes you up and you find it hard to put the book down, then it's a good read. And if it makes readers think about a serious threat to the civilized world, all the better.

While it does stand alone as a story, it's obvious that the author has a point to make. Hostile reviewers complain far too loudly that this is not a work of great literature. But Forstchen's goal was not to present a work of despair or self-recrimination acceptable to the aesthetic tastes of the political left. Frankly, I expect Forstchen would forgo the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature if he could make the issue of preventing an EMP attack just one tenth as fashionable as was dealing with Y2K in its day. Forstchen has given us two good reasons to read this book, the warning message it implies and the story itself. Warner Brothers has optioned the movie rights. There is a Wikipedia article, and the book has an official website,, with links to congressional documents, as well as scientific information and information about the author and the real-life setting for his novel. You can also see the author speak on on YouTube and listen to an hour-long interview at BookTV, which I strongly recommend. And I recommend this book without reservation.

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