One Second After

By William R. Forstchen

Is it possible to love and hate a book at the same time?

I remember my dad listening to the radio when I was a kid, yelling at the host, but tuning in every day, anyway! I suppose that's a love hate, or love to hate, relationship.

And in effect, that's how I felt about this book. I loved the premise (if you've read my column for any time now, you know I'm a sci-fi, monsters, post-apocalypse fanatic), but found the overblown melodramatics one scosh away from unbearable.

The premise is simple, and true to the day-after-the-world-ends mythos: somebody (and it sort of doesn't matter whom) explodes nuclear weapons high up in the atmosphere over the U.S. (and, as it turns out, a few other places as well, though our heroes don't know that - or much of anything else - for several months). The result of such an attack is what is called an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) event. This pulse essentially knocks out all modern technology: computers, circuitry of all kinds, telecommunications, vehicles, transportation of most kinds - essentially anything technological that's been created in the last 60-70 years.

The story is about everything that happens after this event: the breakdown of society as we know it. With transportation knocked out, food is soon in short supply, as are medicines, paper products, even water is hard to obtain for many communities that rely on pumping. With cars all dying in an instant, freeways are blocked, and if you can't walk there, you can't get there. The ramifications of that are soon obvious: if you don't have water pumped to your house, and you don't have a car, you are reduced to carrying as much as you can lug for as far as you have to lug it. Needless to say, the pace and nature of labor-to-survive change radically.

At first, everyone more or less sits around, waiting for the inevitable return of services. But a few know that things will never return to normal, among them our hero-in-chief, the insufferable John Matherson. Matherson is one of the most unlikely heroes ever to be written into a work of fiction, and not because he isn't the requisite tall, dark, handsome, and suffering - his wife of 20-some years has recently died, leaving him with two daughters, 16-year-old Elizabeth, and 12-year-old diabetic, Jennifer.

No, John is unlikely as a hero because he is, not to put to fine a point upon it, a jerk. I couldn't help wondering if John is author William Forstchen's view of himself, and his idea of what a real manly man is; but in fact John is rude, opinionated, overbearing, full of himself, favors one daughter over the other, is self-pitying, and feels entitled while at the same time humbly accepting everyone's gaga admiration of him. Before he executes two kids who make the mistake of robbing drugs from the old folks home (shooting them at point blank, as one of them begs for mercy), he makes a full-of-himself speech about What America Is All About... forgetting that one of the important things America is all about is democracy - that is to say, in America, there was/is no fiat. We all are apprise of the rules going in and are given a choice to abide by them. Since at the time the kids took the drugs they had no idea it was going to be a capital-punishment offense, I was more than a little appalled by the unilateral and self-righteous action taken by the town leaders - to which office John, by virtue of his mother-in-law having a pre-computer Edsel, is appointed (he, by the way, categorically refuses to turn the car over to the use of the town, for the good of all, and keeps it to benefit himself - as he grabs more than his share of insulin for his daughter, who after all, is his daughter). In a particularly disgusting scene, John, once communications are finally available, contacts the head physician at a nearby hospital, and rages at the exhausted doctor for refusing to give his Type 1 diabetic child their few precious stores of insulin. When the doctor points out that for a Type 1 diabetic, it is only a matter of time, and, as there is no chance of getting any more supplies any time soon, they are reserving what little they have for adults with necessary skills who can survive longer on less. John screeches that it his daughter, not just anybody, we're talking about here.

I wasn't even sure what to make of this scene: are we supposed to see John as touchingly human, loving his daughter so much that even he, the noble John Matherson, can be broken by suffering? Or are we to feel anguish that even the elite among us will suffer loss? Or are we to think that John is just a self-centered ass who verbally abuses another man who is trying against all odds to keep it together, and do the most good for the most people?

Even more incomprehensible as anything but wishful thinking is the cardboard character Michaela, a sexy (the women as Forstchen describes them are frequently "sexy," unless they are the main character's daughters, and it begs the question why Forstchen's male characters are never described that way), much younger nurse who happened to be on the road passing through the small North Carolina town in which the story takes place when the EMP event occurs. Almost immediately, she starts not-so-subtly throwing herself at John, which favor he returns with glares, pulling away, and rudeness. One can only wonder what it is about John that makes people overlook all his glaring character flaws - certainly nothing obvious in the way he's written.

Another perplexing part of the story is Forstchen's insistence on having his main (and other) characters smoke incessantly. Again, I suspect that Forstchen himself smokes, and sees it as a manly thing and even an act of defiance in a PC world. But John punctuates every difficult conversation, disappointing or frightening event by pulling out a smoke. And another. And another. So he's self-centered, nasty, rude, and his breath stinks. What's not to love?

A laughable tendency of the writer is to liberally lard his story with bathos. I love it when I can use a seldom-used word and have it be exactly the right one for the situation! Ludicrous pathos, indeed, Forstchen's many scenes of saluting a dead soldier, singing a sad song before battle, or breaking into the national anthem for the sheer joy of it. (Oh, and then lighting a cigarette.)

Co-incidentally, many of the cast of characters in the book are ex-military, including John, who is a Colonel retired who was, at the time of the event, teaching history at a small Christian college. Still, he, and a few others who have had military experience also have some insight into what has happened, and, because of this insight, are more quickly prepared to act, though one of the main points of the story is that while an EMP is a known threat to U.S. security, there is virtually nothing being done to prepare for such an event and its aftermath. Mechanical/analog backups for water, transportation, and communication are slim-to-nonexistent, nor are there evacuation plans in place for large (vulnerable) cities.

All that said, the details of what might happen to a country suddenly bereft of all the modern amenities, and literally thrust back into the 1800s, are fascinating, and Forstchen does keep the story moving ahead at a rapid clip. His bad guys are bad (cannibals and the like), and his good guys are annoying but at least he doesn't fall prey to the modern novelist's penchant for blurring the lines of good vs. bad, or making his characters so unlikeable we can't help wondering why anybody wasted his time writing about them. Except, now that I've written that sentence, I may have to say that John comes perilously close!

So you must be asking yourself, why did I read this book? I'm a glutton for punishment? I was just in a profoundly bad mood and needed something to take it out on? Seriously, the premise was indeed interesting, and if melodramatic, Forstchen's story was essentially sound. I kept coming back for more because, in the final analysis, I wanted to find out how it ended,  even if I wouldn't have minded telling John to get over himself.


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