In the afterword to One Second After, William Forstchen’s novel of a small American town struggling to survive after an electromagnetic pulse disables all electronics in the United States, USN Captain William Sanders claims such an attack is possible, states that our nation is entirely unprepared for it and suggests this novel should serve as a wake-up call. The author bio states William Forstchen holds a Ph.D. from Purdue in military history and the history of technology and is a professor of history at Montreat College in North Carolina so it is safe to say the man knows what he is talking about. The story he crafts is scary in its authenticity, but I found the execution lacking.
Forstchen’s setting and the rippling effects of the EMP attack are the strongest aspects of his novel. No electricity means no refrigeration which means rapidly spoiling food and medicines like insulin. There are approximately six million American diabetes sufferers who require insulin and without it, they will die within a matter of weeks. With our economy so largely dependent upon electronic transfer of currency, banks and retail cannot function. When people are unable to access their money, they panic and panic breeds violence. Commercial airliners, their systems dependent upon on-board electronics, fall from the skies. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are approximately seven thousand airplanes in the air over the United States at any given time. Many of those are commercial airliners with hundreds of passengers aboard. Every modern road vehicle with a computer becomes a giant paperweight. Roads and highways become as clogged as a bacon-lover’s arteries. Even modern trains have computers. No airplanes, trains, and road vehicles means no freight. Food grown in the Midwest cannot be delivered to its destination and so it sits, rotting. No fresh water, no telephones, no radio. Entire cities and communities are cut off from the world. The less moral among us begin to cause trouble just because they can. They form gangs and terrorize, steal, rape, murder. All of this is frighteningly and believably portrayed in One Second After.
I have huge issues with the novel, however. It is patriotic in the extreme. While I can appreciate the portrayal of American ingenuity, community, and resolve as the qualities that win the day, Forstchen takes it too far. Several times, during heated arguments about the correct course of action, the less desirable option is rejected because “we are still Americans”. How about argue that the a particular course of action is the right one to take and explain why instead of just saluting Old Glory and suggesting supporters of the alternative action are un-American? This short-sighted and weak perspective is often used by people who are incapable of supporting their argument. Further, people break into pro-America songs at the most ridiculous moments. Think of the little girl suddenly singing “America the Beautiful” in the 1997 film The Postman. It is a laughable scene in the film and it happens multiple times in One Second After. I have never engaged in so much eye-rolling while reading a novel in my entire life.
I also had issues with Forstchen’s style and language, the most aggravating being the author’s unforgivable incorrect contractions of could have, should have, and would have. The correct contraction of should have is should’ve, not should of as Forstchen writes. It is not just a one-time mistake. He does it every instance, of which there are many. Yes, when spoken aloud, should’ve sounds like should of but this does not mean it is an acceptable spelling. The error is so pervasive that it yanked me right out of the story every time it happened. Some authors, notably John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, intentionally use incorrect language in dialogue to portray characters as uneducated. Forstchen cannot claim this literary device. None of his characters are illiterate bumpkins like Steinbeck’s Joad family. This is just poor use of language and it is inexcusable.
I found Forstchen’s dialogue attribution lazy. Far too often, a character will join or begin a conversation and Forstchen, instead of surrounding the dialogue with action bringing the character into the scene, simply says It was [character name]. This dialogue attribution should be used sparingly. I find it most effective when used to suggest other characters in the scene are surprised by the sudden appearance of the speaker. Either Forstchen cannot write good description introducing a character to a scene or all of his characters live life being startled when anyone else speaks.
I like the premise of One Second After. Forstchen’s small town setting is good. His characters behave in a believable way given their rapidly deteriorating circumstances. The novel is paced well and the story entertained me, but the points against it –poor style and super-saccharine patriotism— far outweigh the positives. I strongly recommend Stephen King’s Under the Dome and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as superior end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories.