Saturday, May 12, 2012

Half Past Midnight: A Review

Jeff Brackett's Half Past Midnight is an action filled apocalypse-in-progress novel set in the general area of Houston, Texas after a nuclear war that begins with an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) strike.  There is a planned companion novella (Road to Rejas) that details other characters within the novel.

Jeff Brackett lives near Houston Texas with his wife. The youngest of his three kids has left for college, and there is at least one grandchildin the mix.  He is interested in the martial arts, and crafting handmade knives.  Both of these interests are shared with our novel's hero.

The novel gets started with, Leland Dawcett, stumbling around in the dark of his family' owned machine shop, cursing up a storm.  He finds dear dad dead in place.  His artificial heart out of action from the EMP burst.  As our hero has hung out with some preppers, he know what has happened.  But it not the knowledge that all electrical power is down, and electronics are toast that mortify him: 
Worst of all, I knew he had died just a few minutes before, while I was stumbling around int he darkness of the shop and cursing at boxes.  The last thing my father had heard had been me cursing.  The shame and sorrow of that knowledge freed the tears I didn't know I'd been holding back.
Oh my!  It brings up that very popular quote of Oscar Wilde's in reference to a rather maudlin tale of Charles Dickens.
"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing" see here
But it is all over with in a moment as our hero runs home to scoop up the wife and kids and they are off to safety.

They escape to the outskirts of a  fictionalized small town about 180 miles northwest of Houston.  There are an awful lot of towns in that area, including the City of College Station with 100,000 people and  home to Texas A&M University, so it is not really all that clear to me where exactly in the authors mind they are supposed to be.  A quick look through Google-Streetview shows a flat area, with semi-dense woodlands.  It reminds me a lot of the low country coastal plains in the Carolinas - sitting on top of the old shallow sea beds.

They have some adventures with a truly villainous villain type on the way, but once they are safe at their destination, they scramble, with the help of a neighbors construction equipment, to buid an impromptu bomb shelter. 
The book has a modicum of life under the new reality of 19th century standards of living interspersed with run ins with various bad guys. 
The author has done some research on the EMP-effect, and nuclear warfare.  You can variously agree or not with his conclusions. 
But we are in the last book of our EMP-Solar Flare Review Special, and I did want to touch on one item that runs throughout the post-apocalyptic survival genre: particularly the fast acting EMP-Solar clan.

It has been my generally thought, that these apocalypse-in-progress authors took a few liberties with their story lines and were hamming it up a little with the combat in their novels to make it a bit more readable.  Many of them come across like Cowboy Westerns in their gun duels, and others like Sgt. Rock blowing up panzers with an endless supply of grenades gasoline bombs.  However, I have come to realize from reading this author's posting here, and a friendly email discussion with another author, that they seemed to have no idea that their post apocalyptic combat was just a little over the top: maybe just a tad bit way too heroic.
Jeff Brackett, JL Brackett -Learning to Write Blog, 15 January 2012.
Obviously there is no way for us to really know what the world of HPM would look like – what it would be like to live through the hell of what I referred to as “D-Day”. But when I first began to think about writing HPM, it was with the idea that I wanted to tell as realistic a story as I could. Of course, since we haven’t really had a nuclear war (thank goodness), that meant I had to depend on a lot of homework.
His mistake, IMO, is that he greatly underestimates the amount of knowledge you need to write a novel like this in a "realistic" fashion.   Tolkein spent years building up Middle Earth, and he had the huge advantage that when he was done, there was relatively little that you could contradict him on.  After all Middle Earth does not exist.  But of course, the real world exists, and while we may not have had nuclear Armageddon yet, we have had a fair amount of experience in areas that are touched on these novels.  Like small unit combat, or logistics.

I am going to touch on the logistics, not because the author is unique,  but because he does what almost all the authors do:  Including some authors with military experience. 

Teaser Alert:  If you don't want to know too much about the story, you will want to skip down to the fourth from bottom paragraph: the one that starts with "Did I like the story?".

About half the book deals with an extended battle with an evil General.  The whole deadly encounter has been signaled from way back.  It is a universal truism of all apocalypse-in-progress novels that the bad guys you spare, are going to show back up again, and 98% of the time they aren't there to let bygones be bygones.  In any case this evil general comes into town with what I would roughly call a mechanized infantry brigade, with an attached oversized tank platoon (six Abrams tanks).

So is it realistic?  The bad guys have about 3,000 troops.  Active people need to eat about 2 pounds of food a day.  Modern Americans typically eat about 4.7, but we will assume that there has been an adjustment to a new reality.  There is no discussion of them having a tractor trailer with them, but lets pretend they do.

How long will that tractor trailer load of food last in feeding 3,000 people?   Well tractor trailer can hold around 50,000 pounds of material on the high end.  Which makes for 25,000  two-pound day long rations.  This happens to jibe fairly well with  a discussion I saw online where a group said that they collected 1, 0000, 0000 meals , and it was equal to 40 tractor trailer loads of food (1,000,000/40=25,000 x (4.7/2)/3=19,583 two pound meals).  25,000 days of rations/3000 equals 8-1/3 days of supply for the bad guy brigade.  So a whole tractor trailer will have a little over a weeks supply.
And then they have their motor pool which includes 6 Abrams Tanks (I forget which model).  The Abrams is ridiculously wasteful fuel hog.  It is not just that it gets just over one-half mile per gallon.  It has a turbine engine that burns up massive amounts of fuel even at the idle.  The tanks when operating will burn through about 300 gallons in 8 hours of operation.  They can use almost any type of fuel, so if you supplied each Abrams with its own tanker truck (the bad guys do have some of these), they will go through the entire tanker (9,000 gallons/300) in about 30 days.

This whole battle goes on for months -half the book.

And I am being intentionally conservative, in James F. Dunnigan's How to Make War (1993), he notes:
A single U.S. M-1A1 tank in the 1991 Gulf WAr could consume nearly 500 tons of supply (mostly fuel and water) in 24 hours of constant movement and fighting.  Worse, it takes five tons of conventional artillery shells to inflict one casualty on the enemy (p468).
500 tons of supply in a day in what was considered a cake walk.
And if the bad guys didn't run out of food and fuel, the villagers would.  So long as the villagers were farming, they would presumably be O.K.  But it doesn't take an Abrams tank to disrupt farming.  With about 6,000 villagers, they would have to forage for pretty close to 12,000 pounds of wild garlic, bunny rabbits, etcetera each day.  I am sorry, even "That Buckshot Guy" with his supernatural trapping skills couldn't pull that off.

That's post-crash populations crashed even when they were much lower than today's.  Even a  relatively simple farming economy, such as the Greece's in the Homeric Age could support far more people than foraging. 

It is also why farming cultures usually lost to the nomadic (Mongols, Turks) herdsmen whenever the nomads organized themselves enough to go on the offensive.  It was too easy to disrupt farming.  Faced with starvation, and if given the option, the farmers would usually buy off the herdsman.

Well enough on this topic. 

Did I like the story?  As an action adventure with an occasional detours into prepperisms, it was allright.  Heroes that are a little too much like their authors tend to take some of the tension away because you know that they will be nothing less than improbably heroic throughout the tale.  But while the combat sequences were not particularly likely (and no I will not detour again) they certainly had a lot of action.  If you like Western or Prepper shoot-em-ups, you will probably like this book just fine.
Now for our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings:  realism (aka: grittiness) and readability.
Realism is not too difficult to figure.  It deals with day-to-day survival issues.  The characters have very little in the way of outside information.  You are there at their level.  The middle portions of the book (before the bad guys show up) gets into extreme cozy territory, and the author-heroes heroics are so extreme, the bad guys such a bunch of strawmen, that I am going to say that it is an above average 5.

Readability is fairly straight forward.  There are some extended prepperism breaks, and enough contemplative discussion that it is not a page turner through most of its portions.  But it still moves along fairly well, and the language and characters actions are pretty straight forward.  I will say that it is above average in the ease of reading and tip it just barely up to a 6.

As the cover was originally intended (from authors website). I think that it is a cool cover, but everyone who saw it thought the novel was a YA directed at young ladies, so they went with the big bang cover above.


PioneerPreppy said...

Good review. Very few people can grasp the sheer problem involved with collapse logistics and especially Food and Fuel. Something I try and do a post about every so often and run the numbers on just to sustain an individual or family.

Within a very short time period vehicle combat would be almost nill unless some area is heavily supplying the troops. The amount of a supply train needed for conventional troops to hold a hostile area would be overwhelming. Post collapse combat would quickly become infantry with very light vehicle support within a month.

russell1200 said...

PP: Logistics is not the easiest information to come up with. It's scattered all over the place. But it is interesting that people who will go into extreme detail on their bunkers and compounds, and how much food they have stored away, will not do any number crunching to figure out how much weight in food it takes to feed a large body of soldiers.

For modern armies it is usually considered to be about 100 pounds a day. You can obviously do a lot less, but than of course you get less modern.

I think you would start seeing a lot of bycyle units. Horses, if you are feeding them from grass along the way, are not nearly as fast.