Josh's Reviews > One Second After

One Second After by William R. Forstchen
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Mar 26, 2012

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bookshelves: sci-fi, thriller, post-apocalyptic
Read in September, 2010

William Forstchen's One Second After is a simple novel in the tradition of the disaster story. While the first half of the novel reads like a low-budget disaster movie, the powerful second act redeems the weaknesses of the first.

The classic plot is nothing new: the world has gone to hell. In this case, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon has been used against the United States, rendering all electronic equipment useless. Then our hero, former Colonel John Matherson, who is undoubtedly modeled on the humble author, bravely steps up to rescue his family and his community from impending doom.

While Forstchen seems to have a good grasp of society, he completely misses the mark when it comes to individuals. From Forstchen's perspective, people are dualistic: either you are a liberal or you are a conversative. Either you are smart or you are stupid. Either you are a criminal or you are an upstanding citizen. And to each of these categories he happily applies all of the condescending stereotypes available to him. There's the Volkswagen-loving hippy, the town's own variant of Barney Fife, the token Pakistani with his convenience store, and so on.

This quaint, cliched view of the world leads to some very awkward and unrealistic scenes. For example, early in the novel, Matherson stops near the highway, where all of the cars and trucks have been incapacitated due to the EMP, leaving behind hundreds of stranded motorists. Here we learn that all truckers are either aggressive drunks or are responsible, gun-toting vigilantes.

In another example, one of the stranded motorists is having a fit because the town pharmacist won't refill his prescription. Of course, with supplies being low and no power or communication, there is good reason to turn him away, especially because he is rude and we suspect that he may be an addict. So how does Matherson, our hero, handle the situation? He sneaks up behind the man and cracks a bottle over his head as if he were in a bar fight. The pharmacy women then fawn over our brave hero while his foe lies cursing in a puddle of blood. Hilariously, just moments later, Matherson himself tries to secure his own personal supply of insulin for his daughter to the detriment of the town's other diabetics, albeit more politely.

The second half of the novel is far superior to the first. When the fabric of modern society breaks down, when the grocery stores no longer have food and the pharmacy no longer has drugs, we are confronted with horrific scenes of overwhelmed and understaffed hospitals and nursing homes, haunting moral dilemmas, and the reality that someone must determine who lives and who dies. Once martial law has been declared, how should the town handle criminals? How should angry mobs be controlled or contained? Should food be confiscated and rationed for the town or left to individuals to fight and die amongst themselves? What is to become of our pets?

While there have been dozens of novels written about the end of the modern world, few have described so well what the aftermath might look like. It is easy to forget how reliant we are upon our cell phones, cars, imported food, and the law to keep us safe and comfortable. Furthermore, few of us realize that, even if we were able to survive the immediate aftermath of such a disaster, there would be millions of hungry, scared people fighting over the same limited resources in areas not naturally capable of supporting such large populations.

Honestly, the first part of One Second After was so tacky that I nearly gave up on it. I'm glad I didn't. While Forstchen's insight into individuals is weak at best, his insight into society at large is excellent. He takes us along on a terrifying journey into the nightmare that is our modern world deprived of the technological marvels we used to build it. As with most stories of this type, One Second After ultimately confronts the double-edged sword of technology. While it improves our lives -- or even keeps us alive -- our reliance upon it may weaken our society and make us vulnerable in ways we could never have imagined.
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