One Second After

Reviewer: Susan Shepherd

Author: William R. Forstchen

Published: 2009

Reviewed: 2011-09-10

Publisher: Forge Books

"One Second After" is an apocalyptic science fiction book that has a
couple serious flaws but tells a pretty decent story anyway. The
premise is that several nuclear weapons go off---one far above the
United States, two elsewhere. As a result of the EMP, the power goes
out and all electronics from cell phones to digital watches are
ruined. John Matherson, a professor and retired colonel, must do what
he can to help his family and the small North Carolina town they live
in to survive until aid arrives.

The storyline works reasonably well. Since the characters are just
normal folks, most people take a bit to catch on to the idea that an
EMP is the cause of their troubles, and it takes even longer for the
community to get organized and start doing something about it. Their
solutions are interesting and sometimes heartbreaking, and it is the
tale of a town in crisis that really captured my attention.

For me, at least, the book would have been greatly improved if I'd
been able to root for the protagonist. Many novels feature
protagonists who are clever, capable, and decent. Unfortunately,
Matherson comes off as the sort of self-important asshat who an
emergency government might occasionally consult but who would be
avoided otherwise. One of his first actions, post EMP strike, is to
refuse to tell the mayor anything unless she lets him smoke in her
office, and he doesn't improve from there.

In all fairness, Forstchen wasn't aiming to write a Heinleinesque
story where the bad guys are defeated by good, smart, competent
people. This is a work of disaster fiction, and as such it is
reasonable that the main character not be the sort of virtuous
natural-born leader we'd all wish for in such unfortunate
circumstances. That doesn't stop me from wanting to strangle the
protagonist, and there were several times when I had to stop reading
for a while because the sheer concentration of arrogance astounded me.

(Matherson: "Ah, you are male. Clearly you should handle the gun,
even though you are a complete unknown to me, and my daughters have
both had firearms safety training." Actual situation, though the
dialogue is fictitious.)

Ultimately, the book had an unusual premise and a more than adequate
follow-through. As disaster fiction goes, it does a better than
average job of depicting Typical Small Town's reaction to a major
emergency. But if you want to read apocalyptic fiction with
characters you can root for, try "Lucifer's Hammer" or "World War Z"
or "Alas, Babylon" or "The Stand" or "Dies the Fire" instead.