Friday, 2 January 2015

William Forstchen, "One Second After" (2009)

Forstchen essentially narrates, through the vision of a typical hero of a US conflict narrative, the struggle for the citizens of a small North Carolina town to survive the year following an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the continental United States (as well as two other parts of the world).

Characterization is not Forstchen's forté. The narrator is a university history professor, former military man, widower, and father of two teenage girls. The protagonist is a bit of a cutout: former smoker falling back into the habit to manage the awful stress, stepping into difficult situations to do things no one else is willing to do, making good strategic calls for the benefit of the community, etc., etc., etc. Forstchen makes some effort to give the character some more human dimensions; he indicates that although a military man, the narrator served primarily in an administrative/leadership role and had little combat experience, he quickly starts voraciously eyeballing an attractive woman who finds herself stuck in the community, and he loves his dogs.

Where this book is intriguing, however, is as a piece of post-apocalytic/dystopian political fiction. The primary concern of the novel is exploring how societies would choose to govern themselves in the absence of 'higher temporal authority'. In this regard, Forstchen offers intriguing scenarios, poses challenging problems, and considers how they might be most likely resolved. Substantial space is given to describing discussions of the 'town council', explaining the thinking processes underlying decisions, and narrating discussions as options are weighed.

I have two core criticisms with the text. Firstly, there is little consideration given to resistance, dissension, and madness. In a dystopian scenario based on a near-instantaneous collapse of society - even within a somewhat isolated, small population centre - I would expect that many situations would dissolve into shouting matches, pushing and shoving, screaming and hair-pulling, accompanied by acts of desperation and insanity. Although Forstchen addresses looting, pillaging, rape, and cannibalism, these all seem to be marginal acts perpetrated by marginal figures in the story, and are treated clinically. Within the community, self-control and cooperation seems to be the near universal response. Perhaps this strategy was intended to underline the heroic charisma of the leaders, but for a society oriented around a revolutionary, individual rights focus, seems rather idealistic or naive.

Similarly, the enemy - the outsiders - are caricatures. Drug addicts and gang members from a nearby larger population centre, they manage to cobble together a small army to raid and terrorize other communities. While it is entirely possible that these types of groups might exist, it is difficult to see how they would manage to survive for an extended period as travelling marauders, particularly as they would likely not have the technical skills to adapt to the available technology, to generate a food supply once the existing reserves are depleted, and to create a viable leadership that is not constantly battling for dominance against competitors. It is far more likely that most communities would simply not be able to manage floods of refugees, the ravages of disease, and internal squabbling.

Overall, I think Walking Dead offers a more reasonable account of the post-apocalypse than One Second After. Of course, absent the zombies.

You can visit the book website.

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