1,429 of 1,688 people found the following review helpful
Sobering, yet flawed
, April 14, 2009
This review is from: One Second After (A John Matherson Novel) (Hardcover)
I purchased this book because I have been flogging the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack scenario to friends and relatives since early 2008, when it became apparent to me that the U.S. had lost the will to halt nuclear proliferation among terror-sponsoring states. I reasoned that a stateless actor or an apocalyptic regime might calculate that an EMP attack would actually create more casualties and more economic damage than a direct strike on any one city. An EMP attack also has the advantage of being the equivalent of hitting the broad side of a barn. Just get the nuke up a couple hundred klicks and go "boom," rather than trust your missile's guidance to hit an urban center from offshore or (alternatively) risk detection of a smuggled warhead. Lastly, the straightforward atomic bomb designs a nascent nuclear state is likely to deploy don't make as big a crater as a sophisticated "hydrogen" (fusion) bomb does, but they're already very effective at creating EMP.
Given the above, one would imagine I'd be among the vanguard in extolling this novel. For reasons great and small though, I was ultimately disappointed. In my opinion the story's biggest flaw is its implicit assumption that EMP would render irrevocably inoperable any integrated-circuit based device -- i.e., anything more advanced than wires, coils, and vacuum tubes -- and by extension anything that depended upon such devices (your modern automobile, for example). My readings so far of the findings of the ongoing EMP Commission (in particular April 2008, see empcommission.org) suggest that this is a gross exaggeration. True, while the near-certain collapse of the electrical grid would immediately harm the transportation infrastructure (imagine no subways, no commuter rail, no street or traffic lights), the vast majority of automobiles would still be mobile. Similarly, while the cellular phone and land-line telephone systems will be severely crippled (at onset) or entirely nonfunctional (after 72 hours) due to their ultimate dependence on the electrical grid and sophisticated switching technologies, there is little reason to believe that battery-operated two-way radios and (especially) simple AM and shortwave receivers would be harmed at all. The author's belief that only antique autos would run and only tube radios will turn on following EMP is key to creating the conditions of immobilization and isolation on which the rest of his story arc depends. And when I couldn't buy into the author's core assumptions, the plot lost much of its punch.
From that point onward, the book's other shortcomings became more grating. Some old-school editing, say from my bespectacled junior-year English teacher, would have helped a great deal. Mrs. K would certainly have caught the "horde" used mistakenly instead of "hoard", the "striped" for stripped, the "breech" which was supposed to be a breach and the "than" / "that" typos which mangle a sentence. Adverbs in dialogue were recycled to the point of distraction. There's only so many times a character can respond "sharply" to another in a single conversation before the reader wants to attack the book with a sharply instrument.
It would be a terrible shame if this book's vision convinced readers that an actual EMP attack would be unavoidably catastrophic, and survivable only by a select few who empty their bank accounts and utterly abandon their former lifestyles in preparation. I sincerely believe that this is not the case, and that the most-likely EMP attack scenarios can be survived by nearly everyone who can plan for three months without the grocery store, ATM, and utility services. Yes it takes some forethought and a little planning, but think of it as a life insurance policy for your entire family that actually pays off when you wind up living instead of the other way around.
I would've loved an EMP disaster novel to be a smash hit that would later become the movie that would galvanize an irresistible push for robust missile defense and an uncompromising policy of nonproliferation. I desperately want a concerted government program to harden the protections on high-value electrical infrastructure and build increased EMP resistance into our evolving telecommunications system. Maybe these things will still happen, but I don't see this book being the trigger for them.
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