The Final Day (William Fortschen)

I did not have high hopes for this book. But I was wrong—this is an outstanding book. It’s way better than the middle book of the trilogy (One Year After), which was overly talky and seemed like filler. Sure, it’s not as awesome as Fortschen’s first book, One Second After—but it’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle once, much less twice. So you should read this book, because unlike most “prepper” literature, which tends to be, um, not “literature,” this book both engrosses the reader and makes the reader think.

The plot here turns around the hero of the series, John Matherson (an obvious stand-in for the author, but hey, it’s his book). I won’t let slip any spoilers, but the action centers primarily not around the small towns in North Carolina that took the focus of the earlier books, but around strategic considerations and larger-scale military action. All this is well-drawn, although it does mean that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened, because much of the force of One Second After came from that each of us could see ourselves, overnight and unexpectedly, in the same situations as the characters, facing the same hard choices. We thought: that could be us. It feels less like it could be us in this book, but the reader is still drawn in.

Sure, the book isn’t perfect. It does have what I regard as a major plot hole. Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around the possible detonation of another EMP. This is treated by all as the true End, that would utterly destroy everything and make societal recovery in the United States impossible. But that makes no sense. Any electronics that survived the initial EMP because they were hardened or well-placed would survive. Anything that was destroyed would still be destroyed, not more destroyed. The tentative steps made by the characters toward new electricity generation from hydropower and so forth would similarly not be affected. So it’s just a plot device to add urgency to the characters’ actions. Other than that, though, the plot hangs together very well.

“The Final Day” is a very realistic book. That is, were there to be an apocalypse of the EMP type, this book (and the trilogy) is a plausible interpretation of the longer-term aftermath, reconstruction and resulting conflicts. Fortschen understands what many apocalypse writers do not—that a vacuum in social order is abhorrent and will for certain be filled by something, because people will give up nearly anything to avoid anarchy; and that the new order is not likely to be filled by the second coming of George Washington and the Founding Fathers. Too much apocalyptic fiction (e.g., Rawles) believes that a decentralized, spontaneous, virtuous society would spring from the ashes, if we merely prioritize our guns, our Bibles, and our Madison. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those three, or prioritizing them. But it makes the mistake of believing ingredients lead to results. It’s just like those 1950s experiments with running electricity through a cocktail of chemicals duplicating the atmosphere of early Earth to see if life results. It doesn’t.

Another way in which The Final Day is realistic is that is emphasizes a frequently missed point—that in any disaster, those with power will mostly do anything to help themselves, whether on a small scale or a national scale, the little people be damned. As one character notes, “Don’t we, the ordinary citizens of our country who are aware of the [EMP] threat, realize the elites will take care of their own no matter what happens?” The same would be true, in many cases, of local elites. Or, using Milton’s words several times, Fortschen notes that many would rather reign in hell that serve in heaven. Oftentimes, in this Age of Trump, average, workaday people are bitterly criticized by the elites for not trusting those elites. But why should they, given what history, human nature, and recent events show about the utter corruption of those elites? This book merely logically extends what we already know, to show what would result.

The Final Day is, fortunately, not realistic in the other sense that so much prepper fiction is—as a how-to guide. It does not describe how, why, and from what online store Joe Blow purchased his phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, how he cared for it, and how well it shot enemies, under the guise of plot. The reader is thankful, or at least this reader is thankful.

There are only a few jarring notes, typos and so forth, and Fortschen’s addiction to the word “indeed.” The most jarring note is actually not in the book itself, but at the very beginning, in the Acknowledgements. In the third sentence, Fortschen thanks his daughter, who he says has now graduated from college. In the next sentence, he thanks his “true love”—whom he “recently married.” He is divorced from his first wife. Now, I don’t know any of these people, nor do I know the circumstances or who initiated Fortschen’s divorce. But given that one of the major themes of the entire trilogy is the love the central character has for his (dead) first wife, and simultaneously for his new wife, as well as constant invocations of religion and character, this jars the reader. Not that people don’t get divorced, often for good reason—but why insult his first wife and mother of his daughter, by implying that he never loved her the way he loves now, in a way that John Matherson would never do over a drink to a friend, much less to an audience of millions of strangers?

In any case, this is a minor problem. Not only is the plot good and the writing excellent, Fortschen shows a nuanced grasp of history and uses it expertly to serve his book, rather than to lecture the reader (though he comes close at times, but never goes over the line). He does not push a political angle—I’m sure he’s conservative, but that doesn’t come through explicitly. The only political issue that does come through is Fortschen’s self-declared role as an EMP evangelist—like John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness to make ready. He is clearly unhappy, and says as much in his Acknowledgements, that America has not taken action against the EMP threat, even though it’s more recognized today (in large part due to Fortschen himself). He probably fears that he’s Cassandra—doomed to know the future but unable to convince others. He probably hopes he’s Jonah, to whom the doomed ultimately listened, and changed their ways. I certainly hope it’s the latter, and we should thank Fortschen both for his books and for his efforts to ensure the collective good.


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