My most recent light-novel read has been a good one, albeit frightening. William R. Fortschen’s 2009 post-apocalypse work, One Second After. The book stands upon the premise of America suffering three EMP attacks in a single day, which destroy electronic systems across the United States. It’s setting is a small Southern town, and how it survives the first few months after the attack.
Fortschen gives his characters the best possible chance survival. The leader of the town is an ex-military professor, John Matherson, who teaches at a local college. The story is told from his perspective. The fictional town of Black Mountain is an archetype of the small, Southern town. Christian, moral, lots of ex-military citizens, a small and trusted town leadership, with a small liberal-art school nearby.
Once the electronic system goes down, it takes the town a day or two to figure out what’s happened, and once they have the ugly reality of a world without power or electronic systems sets in. Without these benefices of modern civilization, society begins to degenerate. The local nursing home becomes a pit of death, decay and the odors of rot, infection, human waste. The scene is among the most horrifying in the book. Pharmacies become the scene of angry confrontations as people try to get a hold of enough medicine to survive. The town declares martial law and is forced to make hard decisions right from the start.
When it is realized that there is not enough food or medicine to keep everyone alive, harsh measures are brought into play. Ration cards are given only to those whose homes and properties are searched for food, to avoid hoarders who live off the public weal. In the course of the story, rations are cut so badly that many people slowly starve to death. The rationing of medicine is even more grim. Anyone who relies upon a daily medicine for their very lives is dead inside a month, with a few diabetics hanging on a few months more.
Young men who steal from the nursing home are publicly put to death, while armed patrols are put together to guard the town’s borders from the onrush of people from dead cities. These multitudes eventually form into a mob of cannibals, and a great battle ensues. The local college becomes a paramilitary organization to defend the town. Over the course of the book the decision is made, quietly, to give more food to those who stand the best chance of surviving, people between their late teens and late thirties.
Such moral choices are unimaginable in the world we live in today. As I was reading the story I was horrified at the choices they had to make, in many cases condemning thousands to a slow death to save the few who might make it. But in a world like that, the only choices are those that are bad, and those that are worse. The story ends with America struggling to regain some sense of unity, a year after the attack.
One Second After is not without its moments of human love and hope. The love of family is a source of solace amidst death and hunger. Mathersons’ eldest daughter Elizabeth gets pregnant by another young survivor, who dies in battle. While Matherson is understandably furious at the two youths, he is brought to realize that in a world where death may come any day, a little love is a source of comfort. When Elizabeth’s lover, Ben, dies, Matherson calls him his son, and swears to care for the young man’s son. The most heartbreaking moment is when Matherson’s youngest daughter Jennifer dies of her diabetes, because they can’t get insulin to her. The scene is awful to read, but serves as a reminder of how fragile are the lives of everyone who relies upon modern medicine to survive each day.
All told, One Second After is not a great work, but it is a good one. Like some other works of post-apocalypse literature, like Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse by James Wesley Rawles, it is built upon an all-too-plausible scenario of sudden collapse. Fortschen bases his book on a 2008 government report upon how vulnerable we are to an EMP attack.
After I read this book I called my mentor to complain of how bleak the world seemed in light of the book. His response is well-worth repeating, “If it happens or doesn’t I won’t worry, because I know the King.” How true, how true. While America does need to prepare for such an attack, since it is possible, we must not live in constant fear and panic. Neither should we be melancholic because of what might occur. History resides in the hands of the Most High, let it all be as according to His will. We know that no matter what, God is on the throne, working out the glorious endgame.