Book Review: One Second After

by John Downey '23 on April 8, 2022
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: One Second After

The Power of History in the Absence of Electrical Power

Madison Palmieri ’22

While some apocalyptic fiction novels are set in a near, nightmarish future or one even more remote, oftentimes, the most frightening and therefore impactful works in this genre take place in the present day. William Forstchen’s One Second After does just that. True to its title, the novel explores what happens in the immediate aftermath of an attack that fundamentally alters modern American life.

When readers first meet protagonist John Masterson, he seems to be living a thoroughly mundane existence in a stereotypical American small town in North Carolina. A war veteran, a professor at a local college, the father to two teenage girls, and the loving owner of two golden retrievers, Masterson’s most pressing concern is whether his younger daughter will think she’s too old for the stuffed animals he got her for her birthday.

When the power suddenly goes dark as a result of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) terrorist attack, however, Masterson unwittingly finds himself in a relative position of authority thanks to his military know-how and respected position in the community. Along with the mayor, the town doctor, and other leading officials, Masterson works to navigate the obstacles that accompany a sudden backwards technological shift of 500 years.

As is the case with all apocalyptic literature, all goes well—until it doesn’t. While this is to be expected, the way in which Forstchen places his protagonist directly in the path of these tragedies makes it particularly gut-wrenching. For instance, due to his curious status as a non-official on the makeshift council governing the small town, he is tasked with executing two thieves, one of whom was a former student of his, by firing squad. An even more tragic instance of this narrative technique is how Masterson must grapple with his desire to break the ration rules to secure insulin for his diabetic daughter while at the same time enforcing the rules for everyone else.

One Second After does a great job of finding moments of humanity in the midst of a world succumbing to moral corruption. For example, when one member of the council suggests that the townspeople may be forced to consider eating domesticated animals, Masterson and the other council members immediately shut him down. Although some of them are eventually forced to do so, such exchanges affirm that the characters strive to hold onto their humanity—and some semblance of normalcy—for as long as they can.

One major recurring theme throughout the novel is the importance of history. Masterson, as a history professor, possesses a wealth of knowledge about historical events, especially those related to war, given his military background. It is this knowledge that, along with his leadership skills, makes him such an admired, respected, and turned-to figure throughout the novel. 

However, at times, Masterson’s historical knowledge borders on voyeuristic. For instance, when at a pre-battle gathering at the local college, at which the student soldiers are told that not all of them will make it out of the forthcoming struggle alive, one of his first thoughts is that the battle will be remembered by historians for decades and even centuries to come.

Nonetheless, One Second After is an overall thought-provoking read. With heart-wrenching moments and vivid, at times graphic, imagery, the insight into the human condition which it offers will remain with readers long after they read its final lines.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars