William R. Forstchen, professor of military history at Montreat College in North Carolina wrote a disturbing doomsday novel about John, retired military and military history professor at Montreat College struggling to defend his family from the apocalyptic aftermath of an EMP event. One Second After opened my eyes in ways I am not sure the author intended.
EMP is the acronym for Electro Magnetic Pulse and is something I had not heard much about until I read this story. In the forward, Newt Gingrich describes how EMP works. “When an atomic bomb is detonated above the earth’s atmosphere, it can generate a ‘pulse wave,’ which travels at the speed of light, and will short-circuit every electronic device that the ‘wave’ touches on the earth’s surface.”
Gingrich stresses that “we as Americans must face that threat, prepare and know what to do to prevent it.” or the “America we know, cherish, and love will be gone forever.” Forstchen delivers a terrifying scenario over the next 345 pages.
The first few chapters were painful and gave me bad dreams. I considered abandoning the effort but out of respect for the co-worker who had lent me the book, continued reading. Despite the dire situation, the choices the main character and his cronies continued to make seemed unnecessarily selfish and harsh. In the hope that there would be an epiphany, a change of heart, perhaps a softening of their paranoia, I slogged my way through to the end.
John, his family, neighbors and community literally don’t know what hit them on the day of the EMP attack. Their electricity goes out along with their TV, radios and computers. All non-vintage cars refuse to start. The nearby highway is instantly littered with inoperable cars and trucks. “Outsiders” begin walking into town looking for food, a phone, or a place to sleep.
Within a day or two the stores in town have been looted and many of the people in the nursing homes have died. John coerces the nice lady at the pharmacy to give him a large supply of insulin so he can keep his diabetic daughter alive. She survives a few months longer than the other diabetics who die when their supplies run out.
The police chief, the mayor and a couple of other town leaders begin meeting daily. They look to John for counsel because of his military expertise and he uses his mother-in-law’s Edsel to drive down from his home in the mountains every day. Martial law is declared. John is elected to conduct the first public execution on the tennis courts. An ex-drill instructor transforms the college students into an army.
I was unable to identify with the main characters because Forstchen’s military focus and sparse writing skills resulted in shallow characters that are severely stereotyped. John and the other town leaders were portrayed as patriotic, paranoid, fearful and selfish with a strong belief in violence as a method of coping. The prototype was male, ex-marine, and capable of defending themselves, their families and the townspeople.
Forstchen’s formulaic writing style is sparse and repetitive. I lost count of how many times he used “He smiled” “She grinned” and “We’re Americans.” I disagree with one reviewer who wrote “One Second After is a masterpiece of distopian [sic] literature that ranks with 1984 and Brave New World.”
I found myself identifying with the peripheral characters. From Mayor Kate Lindsey, who continually votes for softer ways of dealing with the situation, to Jim, the pony tailed Volkswagen mechanic with the ‘can do’ attitude, to the College students who unselfishly gather food from the woods to help feed others.
It was heartening to note that, at the same time this small town is focusing on defending themselves from outsiders, many are digging up their lawns to plant gardens. There is one discussion about saving some cattle for breeding stock although as far as I can remember, this did not come to pass.
More than not, the focus of the story is guns, cars, and drugs with occasional references to strategies involving water collection, gardens and alternative transportation. I found it odd that there were no short wave radios in the story and that when conventional radio transmissions were received they were solely from “Voice of America.”
365 days after the EMP event, eighty percent of the population had died, the deer, bear and wild boars have been hunted into near-extinction and food is now being grown everywhere. On this day, a military column passes through town on their way to Asheville. They stop to congratulate John and his battalion of former students and to pass out food and vitamins. The convoy leader shares some news and the column moves on, leaving the lean survivors to continue fending for themselves. The country is being taken over by the Mexicans and the Chinese and America will never be the same as it once was.
This unlikely read has turned into a valuable experience for me. It has sparked conversations with friends and farmers about food security and forced me to consider what might happen in an emergency. Reading “One Second After” reaffirms my decision to focus my energies on cultivating a healthy local foodshed, gives me renewed respect for my neighbors who tirelessly grow food, and inspires me to get to know more of my neighbors.
The next time a friend offers me a book which I might not choose on my own, I’m going to read it. I’ve learned that reading an alternative point of view can help me understand a different set of values while reinforcing my own beliefs. I will continue to choose cooperation over force but am now aware that not everyone will follow a non-violent path.