Friday, May 11, 2012

One Second After: A Review

William Forstchen’s One Second After is a reality-based apocalypse-in-progress novel that is set in the mountains of Western North Carolina after an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)  attack sets the U.S. back to 1850s level technology. 

William H. Forstchen has a PHD in Military History, and the History of Technology, and like our novel’s hero, a History Professor at Montreat College. His earlier works focused on the American Civil War, and the U.S. involvement in World War 2.

This novel is not the first novel to feature an EMP burst, but because of its mainstream political connections of the author, had probably done the most to popularize the concept.  With the detonation of hydrogen bomb in outer space, gamma ray burst start a chain reaction (The Compton Effect) which  creates a huge electromagnetic pulse that according the novels scenario will wipe out most electronics and melt many much of the electrical grid.  Airplanes, which are now almost exclusively fly-by-wire, use electronics will come crashing out of the sky.  The author in interviews repeats assertions that one year after the event 90% of Americans could be dead.

The novel  takes place in Black Mountain, North Carolina.  The college that our hero teaches at is based on the the school where the author works-  Montreat College. The hero, like the author, teaches history there.  The hero is a retired Colonel; the author studied military history.  I think you see my point.
As for Black Mountain, to my mind the actual layout as described seems to be the somewhat more restrictive terrain a little bit East of the town.  In any case, Black Mountain sits on Route 40 is just a little east of the Asheville, North Carolina.  Interstate 70, is one of the major east-west highways in the United States.  Black Mountain is a major choke point.
Approach to Black Mountain, NC

In any case, very quickly into the novel we get the now typical  EMP event.  Nukes go off in the sky, and everything with even the tiniest bit of electronics stops working.  People start walking.

What I continue to fail to understand is why all these stories have all the newer vehicles electronics being knocked out.  As I noted an earlier:
The Official Report goes into details as to the immediate effect on vehicles. Automobiles that were turned off showed no damage, automobiles that were running cut off 10% of the time, but were immediately able to restart after coasting to a stop. In the case of trucks, one of the thirteen tested did have to be towed [p113]. While obviously disruptive, this is a far cry from the thousands immediately stranded on the highways. Further, it notes that the effects on most electronic medical devices would be limited.

As noted in the report, the primary damage from an EMP attack would be to knock out the electrical system. This would be devastating of course, but requires a different set of protective measures than trying to build a Faraday cage around your car. The books website does reference the report on a separate tab.
I have not seen the author make any correction on this fairly important point.  And if many of our automobiles will still function, one has to certainly hold out the prospects that many other electronic devices will also function.  This portion of the effect would certainly be highly disruptive. But if you are going to risk a massive retaliatory full nuclear return strike, you really need to do more than be highly disruptive.  Hopefully the Iranians will be more impressed by the actual experimental results than the results portrayed by various novelists.  Given the similarities of the EMP in the opening sequences of the story, one wonders if the author was influenced by the earlier online versions of Lights Out.
The early parts of the novel involve getting the local town organized and situated.   Our hero, as a respected learned man, is asked to be on the new town council.  Eventually he is put in charge of the defenses of the town. Since most people have very little in the way off food they do their best to round up what supplies there are to be had, and institute a strict no-nonsense rule of law.  There is a lot of hand wringing along the way, but within a few weeks they are having public executions of criminals,

While the local level goings on of the disaster are fairly well thought out, the greater story of what is occurring in Western North Carolina is a bit shaky.   One suspects that the author is a big fan of the novel Lucifer’s Hammer, because the books finale is set up to look an awful lot like the ending conclusion of that book.  The bad guys all round themselves up, and walk from Charlotte, into the mountains, to attack Asheville.  Why does this happen?  Because that is where the author lives.  Really.  As I have discussed before, there is almost no good reason why, if you have a big shambling horde of desperadoes, you would want to walk through rough channeling terrain into the face of gun fire, when there are all sorts of small urban areas up and down the I-85 corridor that could be yours for the taking.  The very idea of a crazed hoard of people in panicked flight from the cities actually goes back to the days of nuclear warfare, when there was some thought that you could get out of town before the Soviet bombers showed up.  It was picked up later by the economic collapse folks, and has since turned into commonly accepted wisdom.  It is so commonplace in fiction that I have not seen a single person talking about this book question the idea that  a group of folks from the sprawling mass that is Charlotte, would pick up and walk into the relatively barren mountains.

The author also has a tendency to view the world through politicized lenses. This tends to make a lot of the characters rather flat.  The book wastes time taking pot-shots at the government and residents of Asheville.  The straight-laced hero is very dismissive of the hippie-commune type of people, and even makes note that they won’t last long.   I am not sure why he thinks the hippy crowd would be any worse off than anyone else.  The true hippies have more experience living a minimalist lifestyle than most Americans.  If he was picking on some over-weight Wiccans, I could see his point.  But even there, I don’t see how overweight Wiccans would be worse off than your typical overweight Americans- other than of course the fact that they don’t have our hero-author’s beneficial guidance.

This novel tends to be popular within the prepper-survivalist crowd.  Given the positive treatment of the subject of stockpiling some emergency supplies in preparation for a disaster, and the benign treatment that the few prepared folks up in the hills get from our Hero,  that popularity is understandable.

The question is, does it deserve its popularity?  I have two thoughts.

If you think of it as a simulation of an event as it might actually occur -  A conclusion that is reinforced by the way that the book is presented:  forward by Newt Gingrich, touting of authors technical background, etcetera – than the book is a disaster.  The EMP strike’s effects, and, the bizarre flight from city,  the final penultimate battle with the bad guys, all appear to be derived more from earlier fictional sources than historical precedence.   That the book’s main hero is such a close alter ego to the author goes a long way toward explaining the preternatural skill in navigating the small town’s problems.  Some of the after-collapse events seem to rather neatly fall into line with the authors political beliefs.   A belief structure that might be appropriate for national level politics in a functioning nation, but don’t have too much relevance to small town disaster governance.

However, and a big however, if you compare it to similar novelizations of possible disasters, such as the previously noted Lucifer’s Hammer, it stands up reasonably well.  It brings up a lot of realistic and heart wrenching concerns that many apocalypses-in-progress novels ignore.  It doesn’t talk about the old people dying; it takes you on a walk through an old folk’s home, abandoned by most of the staff, and with the stench of death in the air.   It talks about putting saw dust, and other “extenders” into the community food, to make it a little more filling.

How many will we lose?” Charlie asked?


“You said the curve is going to start going up again. How many do we lose in two or three months?”

“One-third to one-half....” (p234).

The farms don’t have their fuel and fertilizers, and the gardens take too long to get up and running to the level needed.

I am going to switch my usual order of review progression and start with the descriptive (not qualitative) ratings as a way to come to a conclusion on my thoughts of this novel. The range is 1 to 7 with 7 being high, which allows for the convenient mid-point of 4.

Readability is an assessment of how hard is the novel to get through.  Short page-turning thrillers zoom buy, literary works with lots of hidden symbolism maybe not so much.   The novel is not a page turner.  There is a fair amount of wasted time, with a lot of fairly lengthy scenarios that don’t really have a whole lot of payback.  For an “established” author the verbiage is rather clunky.  But by the standards of the genre, it is not entirely unreasonable.   I am going to put it exactly in the middle at a four.

Realism (which I occasionally refer to as grittiness) is an assessment of how closely one could personally associate with the action of the book.  Does it feel real, could you see yourself, or someone you know with these problems?   I do not count the various pros and cons of the actual disaster scenario so much as the reaction to the events.

It’s pretty real.  The success of the hero-author in the story may have a little bit of wish fulfillment going on, but the problems seem very real.  Some of the nice people die because nobody thought to make advance preparations.  There are no magic bullets; ordinary folks are forced to take unusual measures to survive.  I rated it in my review roundups as a 6, and I think that is where I will keep it.
So did I like the novel?  Yes, I did.  I don't rate it as highly as some folks, but it is a good read.
The old folks home, the town pulling together to survive difficult times, makes for some compelling reading, and outweigh the occasional slow pacing.

Author with daughter (from his book website)


PioneerPreppy said...

I believe the key to understanding Forchen's life philosophy is really found in his fantasy series "The Lost Regiment". It certainly doesn't explain where it came from I guess but all the key elements of "One Second After" were there only drawn out in more detail.

Each do follow "Lucifer's Hammer" as well in a way but Forchen seems to have some odd interest in cannibalism and tends to believe civil war era technology was the epitome of scientific growth.

He may live in NC now and he may push some small government or conservative values but he cannot hide his snotty New England collectivist/Statist views completely. Nor can he leave behind the taint of the multi-cult either.

russell1200 said...

I forgot to put down the actual number for realism. I will left it at my previous assessment of six.

PP: This novel’s lack of basic research is embarrassing. It is one thing when it comes from a genre enthusiast writing their first novel, but Forchen is supposed to be teaching this stuff. I am curious about his “life philosophy”, but not curious enough to read more of his work.

To have your technological peak in the 1860s indicates that you are more of a sentimentalist than an historian. Based on this novel, that would be easy to believe of Forchen.

Yes our Forchen-hero is very much the little Dictator in this novel. Something that should give people who are in favor of the extreme version of States-rights a pause. Just because the Feds are over reaching and highly problematic, doesn’t mean that the States haven’t been just as bad or worse. And the idea that you can just move around to the State you like is absurd.

PioneerPreppy said...

Even in OSA Forchen reverts to a number of civil war era tech. I believe he raves on about a steam engine. His views on private property is very liberal as well.

Int he Lost Regiment series he eventually begins building into an industrial progress starting from the civil war tech into maxim-like machine guns and partial helium/fabric covered bi-planes.

I believe he was also a hard core civil war reinactor at one time as well. If not still one.

russell1200 said...

Maxim is still pretty close to modern tech. As far as I know he patented just about every system for an automatic reloading weapon used today: gas inpingement included.

Helium fabric biplanes? Interesting, last I knew helium was a rather hard element to come by: it's just that the U.S. got lucky in its sourcing. With a wing large enough to hold an apreciable amount of helium (which does have weight, it's just less than normal air) one imagines they would make for some rather slow hybrids.

I don't recall his view on private property. But he is obviously of somewhat of an authoritarian mindset.