One Second After
-William R. Forstchen
One Second After was recommended to me by a person who read my The Living Will Envy The Dead and is set in a small American town, moments after terrorists (or perhaps the Chinese) detonate a nuke high overhead, causing an EMP that sends the United States back a hundred years. Vast amounts of electrical equipment stop working, cars come to a screeching halt, computers are rendered useless…in short, and it’s the end of the world as we know it. (I think that he overstates the sheer totality of the effects quite badly, but I can work with it.) People who are familiar with Dies the Fire and some of Stirling’s other works will not find much to surprise them in this book.
The story revolves around a main character (John Matherson) who is/was a former army officer who moved to the town to take care of his dying wife and bring up his two daughters. His wife died before the book opens, leaving him a single parent although he does have the help of his wife’s mother. He finds himself at the heart of the town’s response to the crisis and struggles to sort out what they have to do to survive.
It’s not pretty (and not just because John is curiously ineffectual at times.) The modern-day cities have far more people than they can handle, forcing them to expel people or be torn apart by massive food riots. Smaller towns declare martial law and try to keep back hordes of refugees who are convinced that the farmers have food they need. John’s daughter, who is a diabetic, needs insulin and the stocks run out…his other daughter, whose boyfriend seems to abandon his family and move in with his girlfriend, runs out of birth control supplies and gets pregnant. Forstchen doesn’t hesitate to keep hitting them with tragedy after tragedy. They are forced to discuss possibilities like deliberately starving some people to save others, or looting survivalists to feed the rest of the town, or…they actually come up with some quite neat solutions to their problems.
(One I rather liked was an announcement that anyone who wanted a ration card had to have his home and property searched to ensure that they were not concealing food.)
They also discover just how selfish some people can be. A nearby larger town has enough food to feed them all for quite some time, yet the town leaders are driving out refugees to make their stock last longer, trying to force the hero’s town to take lots of people. (They refuse.) Druggies attack an old folks home and take drugs – when captured, they scream for a lawyer. The hero kills them publicly and makes a moving speech about it. There are some moments of genuine amusement and some of pain. The hero sees thousands of people who need help, but helping even a handful of them would exhaust their merger supplies quickly.
And then there’s the traditional attack from fanatic cannibals. My main gripe is that this starts and ends very quickly towards the end of the book. It really needed more build-up and suchlike before the war actually began. As it is, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on – which, given that the hero is the CO of the defenders, rather worrying. Forstchen spends more time dwelling on the agonies than the adventure.
The post-war world is odd, to say the least. The US is effectively destroyed. Parts of it are ruled by religious fanatics like the ones John destroyed. Iran and North Korea got blasted. China has a large presence in the western USA…which makes little sense. The Chinese Navy couldn’t stand up to the USN and most of the USN escaped the pulse. They could easily move a few subs into the area and sink all the Chinese transports until they get the idea. I’d have expected a Mexican intrusion, although the Mexicans probably got hit by the pulse as well. I’d have liked to see more of the post-war world.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the book. One thing that did nag at me is that the characters kept telling each other how stupid some people could be. A college that didn’t have a ROTC training program for kids, or people who think that the end of technology makes the world much better. I quite agree with Forstchen that such people deserve everything they get in a post-holocaust world, but he repeats this point time and time again, including lines about how stupid they all were to have ignored the threat. Rather less importantly, the book needed a good editor. There were quite a few grammar errors in the text.
Maybe not an instant classic, but it stands up well compared to DTF.
At least its not as hopeless.