Paul Di Filippo reviews William R. Forstchen

One Year After, by William R. Forstchen (Forge 978-0-7653-7670-1, $25.99, 304pp, hardcover) September 2015

One Year After, by William R. Forstchen science fiction book reviewIn my review of this novel’s predecessor, One Second After, I said, “Remorselessly, brutally deracinating, incontestable in its precise extrapolations, this leering skull of a novel exists as far from such ‘cozy catastrophes’ as The Day of the Triffids (1951) as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).” But will such evaluations still apply to the new book, which finds our nation on the road to recovery—specifically, the hamlet of Black Mountain, North Carolina, where our hero, Professor John Matherson, and his family have survived the devastation resulting from an EMP strike that led to the death of eighty percent of the USA’s citizens? Surely, matters in the resurgent ruins must now look less bleak, resulting in a “happier” book?

Well, let’s find out!

Indeed, when we open on Day 730 after the attack, it seems as if a precarious stability is in place, with food and medical care of a barely sufficient nature now reliable. There are still nightly watches and barricaded roads, but the onslaught from roving crazies and pillagers has died down. Matherson is running the town as best he knows how, with much help from several ornery lieutenants, and his wife Makala, nurse turned doctor by necessity. But then two things precipitate a chaos that will engulf the town over the next three weeks. (The compact timeframe of this tale stands in contrast to the extended duration of the events in the first book.) Matherson tangles with some local “reivers” led by one Forrest Burnett, forming a reluctant alliance that will embroil him with the folks in nearby Asheville. There, a delegation from what bills itself as the revived Federal government has arrived, and they are about to dictate some harsh terms to Black Mountain for reentry to the Union.

It would be unconscionable of me to lay out the rest of the plot. Suffice it to say that there is an equal and satisfying amount of four threads.

There is lots of attention paid to the technicalities of how one actually rebuilds civilization from the detritus. “Anderson Auditorium was now a thunderous, smoke-filled workshop of wood-fired kilns, a foundry, wire works, and lathes powered by a somewhat gasping old VW engine…” Forstchen’s practical engineering side emerges here with utter believability.

Second, we get solid dramatization of politics and diplomacy, contemplating how a polity can engage with rivals and allies, what the civic duties of any individual are.

Third, we see all the personal ethical and emotional and utilitarian issues Matherson must face, from putting his own daughter into peril to treatment of prisoners, from handling contentious rivals to triage of wounded. And of course, there is also much thought given to what constitutes the soul of America and any responsible nation. Here, patriotism is the first refuge of the battered.

Lastly, of course, there is a huge but not disproportionate amount of vivid, pulse-pounding warfare, as Black Mountain ultimately is forced to tangle with the Feds in Asheville.

Forstchen’s braiding of these four chords is deft and exciting and symphonic. In the midst of battle, Matherson has a moment to contemplate his daughter’s condition. In the midst of a community pig roast, he is formulating strategy. The organic feel of the story replicates the blended nature of real life, where at any one moment we are all juggling a dozen different issues.

This novel does have a different ambiance to it, however, than the first one, somehow less urgent or imperative—which is not to say the stakes are not high and mortal. Black Mountain and all its population could indeed be wiped from the map. But in One Second After, life was more primitive, more hardscrabble and primeval, and sheer survival was always in doubt. Here, we are encountering the more sophisticated dilemmas of a civilization that is not fighting strictly for water and food. Also, the first book had something of a linear incontestability about it. Given Forstchen’s precipitating crisis, the reader could say, “Yes, yes, this is just what would happen next.” But the arrival of the Feds and the problems they represent, while utterly believable and meticulously naturalistic and logical, still has a feeling of just one possible path away from the inevitability of the first book. It was not a given, the only way forward, and not even the most predictable. We could imagine other scenarios, and thus this one is—well, not arbitrary, but selective. However, once you accede to Forstchen’s choices, you never look back and doubt him.

It’s interesting to contrast this series with S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse saga. The latter seems to be moving in a kind of Society for Creative Anachronism direction, whereas Forstchen is much less lyrical, more hard-nosed. Of course, both approaches have their different rewards, and Forstchen certainly wrings every bit of drama and suspense and emotion from his special premises, producing a novel at once heartfelt and clear-eyed, patriotic and dissenting.

Before leaving Forstchen’s nightmarish yet not unhopeful vision of the day after tomorrow, and remaining on this theme, I think we should all schedule a repeat performance (or initial performance, if you’re a newbie) of the cinematic masterpiece by H. G. Wells, William Cameron Menzies and Alexander Korda, Things to Come (1936). Not only would such a viewing remind us that there have been similar times in the past when the future looked grim and barren, but it would also reawaken us to the great role that SF has played in holding our hands, soothing us and guiding us wisely through such minefields in the past. And the ultimate transcendent ending of Things to Come might inspire us to imagine similar upbeat forecasts for our own desperate scenarios.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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