The Final Day: A John Matherson Novel By William Forstchen
Around five years ago, I embarked on a literary journey into the post apocalyptic world of author William Forstchen. I first listened to the audiobook version of his first novel, One Second After, and was enthralled. That book would have stood alone, but then I learned that Forstchen had published a sequel entitled One Year After, which also mesmerized me when I picked that up. Finally, school is out and I now have time to read and blog and I recently read The Final Day in three days. Again, as with the two previous stories, it grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go.
In the previous two books, The United States is hit with an electromagnetic pulse, or an EMP, which is produced when nuclear weapons are detonated. In this story, whomever sent the weapons didn’t intend them to destroy the country, but rather the detonations happen above the atmosphere, so the effect is that the people and the infrastructure are not directly harmed by the blast, but all of the electronics are fried on the inside and devices will no longer function. There are several types of EMP’s that are both manmade and occur naturally, but in the case of this story, it is an attack against the U.S. So what happens when the pulse hits? Cars no longer run, planes no longer fly, communications are knocked out, and people who are dependent on electronic devices, such as pacemakers, just drop dead. In this day when we rely so heavily on electronics, one will find themselves plunged into the dark ages. And so it goes for a small college town near Asheville, North Carolina; the lights go out.
Through the series, the main focus is on retired Colonel, John Matherson, who teaches at Montreat Christian College in Back Mountain, North Carolina. He becomes the de facto leader of the community because of his knowledge, experience, skill, and as a highly respected member of the community. In One Second After, following the EMP attack, the townsfolk are concerned with the immediate needs of the community and how to take care of defending their town from those that would enter and take what little is left. On this score, they do pretty well, but then tragedy strikes as John’s daughter, Jenn, dies needing insulin to live and the supplies are gone. John brings the community together and they do defend the town and manage to subsist, but just barely. One Year After, finds the community a little better off than before, but things are working and the people are hanging together. Thanks to some people that have the knowledge, some electricity is restored along with some communications capabilities. It is learned that an entity calling themselves the legitimate new government of the country will be constripting people from all over the eastern part of the U.S. to serve in an army. When John learns that this army will leave his town completely without protection, he refuses to cooperate. All of the young people of the town are to be taken away, trained as soldiers, and then sent off to try to take back control of some of the major cities that have fallen to chaos. The new government reacts to John’s refusal by sending in a contingent of soldiers under the command of an inept officer to take the young people by force. John and his townsfolk are well trained and manage to repel the attempted takeover and continue to subsist.
The Final Day opens as winter has really set into the mountains and it looks like it is going to be a bad one. Things in Black Mountain are continuing to improve slowly, but everyone seems to be coping. Enough food has been stored to keep everyone fed with just the minimal amount of calories. At least the lights are on and there is some limited communication. It is discovered that some older computer technology was stored in a place that was sufficiently shielded from the EMP. With the help of a couple of tech-savvy townspeople, the old computers are being reworked in an attempt to restore some long-range communication.
Meanwhile, word reaches John that his former commanding officer, General Bob Scales, is trying to contact him. When they finally do get together, John learns that the self-appointed government in Bluemont, Virginia wants him to stand down as leader and turn himself in to stand trial for treason! Scales tells John that if he does not, his community will be obliterated. John considers what he has learned and almost decides to cooperate until he and his pregnant wife are attacked by a small team of commandos sent by the Bluemont government to kill him. In the aftermath of that attack, John confirms that General Scales had nothing to do with the attack and together they discover a horrible truth that will change how the United States will be rebuilt as the future unfolds.
The Final Day begins with what would seem to be a very peaceful scenario but then rapidly ramps up to a fast paced ride that I read during every spare minute I had for three days. The main reason for this is that the characters are written such that one feels that they know them personally. I became invested in John Matherson from the very beginning of the series and have come to admire this fictitious character for many reasons. First, he is a reluctant leader placed in his position because of his Army training and experience. Prior to having the role of community leader thrust on him, he was very happy being retired from the military and teaching history at Montreat College. His leadership style is very much by example and he only becomes assertive when it is absolutely necessary. Mostly, he is very good at inspiring people to take action, even in the face of complete hopelessness. There are also many of the townspeople that appear in the story, some for only brief moments; Forstchen has the ability as a writer to make those people also seem real very quickly. If you read this novel, or the entire series for that matter, make sure you have a box of Kleenex nearby because many characters will be lost as time goes on, and some of them are very good people.
In many ways, this story, and the entire series for that matter, is a lot of fun to read, but is also quite terrifying and thought provoking. Imagine for a minute; it’s a “normal” day, or at least what is normal for you. It is about 4:00 in the afternoon. The sun is shining, birds singing, and you can hear traffic noise coming from the nearby interstate. All of a sudden, everything stops. You check your phone, but there’s nothing there. The lights in your home will not come on, your radio and television don’t work so you can’t even get the news. Out on the interstate, you hear tires screeching and the sound of vehicles crashing for just a bit and then everything goes silent. You talk to others and learn that everyone is experiencing the same thing. You don’t know how long it is going to take for power to be restored. Perhaps you know someone that has a pacemaker and you learn that he has simply dropped dead. Whomever is in charge in your community calls the people together to try to figure out what has gone wrong. Someone suggests an act of terrorism has taken place and it may be a very long time before things are back to normal. Days stretch into weeks, then months. Food and medicine supplies are getting low or have run out, and there are no deliveries to the local grocery store. Small groups of people enter your town looking for handouts of whatever they can get, but there isn’t even enough to take care of your own at this point. Along with the people who are just looking for a little help, there are those that are determined to take what you have and leave you with nothing.
As time goes on, some communication is restored. Most likely it is a ham radio operator that knows enough about electronics to restore one of his radios and listens in to a broadcast from overseas. He learns that the country was hit with an EMP as some minor foreign power detonated three nuclear weapons above the atmosphere. There is not help coming. The major cities, including Washington D.C., stand in ruins as the people there have looted and burned everything that can be found, and they have finally resorted to cannibalism.
Believe it or not, the very scenario that I have outlined is quite possible and given today’s global political climate, might even be probable. There are those that believe that this could happen at any time in the near future and that we, the U.S., are woefully unprepared should some such event take place. Scientists have been warning about the danger that an EMP might cause and nothing has been done to harden our technological infrastructure against EMP attack.
Our planet has experienced the effects of EMP’s in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections from our own sun. As recently as 2003 when there was a series of CME events that knocked out communication. The FAA was offline for about 30 hours due to those events as well as causing damage to several satellites in orbit around the planet. It also resulted in reports of seeing the Northern Lights in regions of the U.S. that normally would not experience this phenomena. A man-made EMP would be far more concentrated and probably far more devastating than one that occurs naturally.
The unfortunate thing is that for every person that warns about the possible dangerous results of an EMP attack, there is another that will deny that there is any danger. Who do we listen to? I should think that it is a pretty good idea to err on the side of caution rather than take a wait-and-see attitude.
Forgive me, I digress. This is, after all, supposed to be a book review, but as I said, The Final Day, as well as its two predecessors are quite disturbing and thought provoking.
Forstchen’s writing is easy to read and the book flows along mainly focusing on the main character, while at the same time, many of the supporting characters in the story are just as compelling as the main role. I found myself having feelings about characters, both positive and negative. At one point in the story, John was convinced that his friend and former commanding officer, General Scales was responsible for the attempt on his and his wife’s life. Not only was Matherson angry, I found myself highly suspicious and angry at Scales. Further, I was happy to learn that Scales was not one of the bad guys after all.
The author is also a master at showing the reader what the story is rather than telling a story. It would not surprise me in the slightest to learn that the John Matherson novels are under consideration for a future movie or television series. Forstchen paints pictures with his words that are vivid and makes his characters come to life.
I highly recommend reading the entire series including One Second After, One Year After, and The Final Day. These three stories meld into one complete epic that is well worth the time no matter what side of the issue one is on. It is just a great saga, especially for fans of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction.
Well, there it is…
Edited by Benjamin Arrowood