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Friday, August 14, 2009

The Feel-Bad Read of the Year.

Then again, it has to be.

I finished William Forstchen's One Second After about a week ago, and it's stuck with me since.

Barring the development of a marked smartening and sense of civic-mindedness by our current awful political class, it will probably haunt me to my grave.

Sadly, this is one of those books which make you wonder how close you are to having dirt shovelled on your coffin.

Actually, OSA makes you think you would be lucky to get a coffin of your very own.

[Warning: Slightly spoilery, but nothing big.]

The premise is simple, and timely: someone--terrorist, rogue state or false flag operation by a more "responsible" state actor--detonates a thermonuclear weapon high above the continental United States. It's not a whodunnit because that's irrelevant.

What is relevant is that in a matter of seconds, the electrical grid, computer networks, telecommunications, and almost all modern vehicles are disabled. "Fried," in a quite literal sense. All over North America.

Ponder that for a moment. The proper response is "despair."

Forstchen sets OSA in his hometown of Black Mountain, North Carolina, just to the west of Asheville. He even includes his current employer, Montreat College, in the tapestry. And a tapestry it is. One of the great strengths of this book is Forstchen's deep love for his adopted home, its people and their culture. While he doesn't whitewash anyone's prejudices or limitations, his affection for the area hooks you in. You not only want to root for these people, you probably would enjoy living among them.

Which makes the book all the more wrenching. Without giving too much away, Forstchen says that two inspirations for his book were Pat Frank's brilliant Alas, Babylon and the crushing film Testament. Thus, I was forewarned to expect downbeat. Good thing.

OSA focuses on John Matherson, a retired Army Colonel and history professor at Montreat College. Matherson has two daughters, the youngest of whom is an insulin-dependent diabetic.

In a nod to Alas, Babylon, Matherson is speaking with a good friend at the Pentagon when his phone and lights go dead. He soon learns his car won't start and he quickly realizes he can't hear motor vehicle traffic or see any planes overhead.

The horror dawns, and he quickly warns the local government, which acts with remarkable vigor and foresight. As do the resilient locals. The book follows the community as it struggles with everything from dwindling medications, the disintegration of regional law and order, the spread of disease, the plight of helpless refugees, the rise of a local warlord and a desperate battle against a cult-army which is led by a man who claims God has abandoned America to the hands of Satan--and the cult leader has Lucifer's direct dial.

It is a quick, but difficult read. Each small inventive triumph by the locals (who are better placed than most on the Eastern Seaboard to survive, complete with access to ancient "redneck" vehicles and parts which are impervious to the pulse) is followed by a half-dozen new problems, at least two of which are frankly insoluble, no matter how clever you are and how determinedly you band together and work at them.

The books ends one year to the day of the attack with another nod to Alas, Babylon: the (mechanized) cavalry rides into town. With the same news delivered to the surviving Floridians in Frank's masterwork: the world as they knew it has ended, never to return.

The little details show the care Forstchen put into the work, such as the effect of tens of millions of people having to go cold turkey off their anti-depressants (and anti-psychotics). That was an element I hadn't considered, but Forstchen did. (Hint: the effect is not good.)

It's a book that you must read, even if I have a hard time "recommending" it. It helps if you have a taste for the dystopic and/or post-apocalyptic.

To their eternal discredit, the Bush Administration and Republican Congress did little to address this problem through 2006, and the divided and Democratic governments which followed did exactly the same.

A pox on all of them if they don't act. One second after an EMP attack is one second too late to do anything about it. Here's hoping OSA helps people think about and work to prevent this horror in the same way works like Alas, Babylon and Testament helped people think about and work to prevent nuclear war.

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