While this will not be a uniformly positive review, I must immediately note that the purely literary quality of Bill Quick’s Lightning Fall (subtitled either “A Novel of Destruction” or “A Novel of Disaster,” depending on whether one is looking at the spine or the cover of the paperback edition) ranks it alongside Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and comes within metaphorical striking distance of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. It is a classic page-turner and a serious threat to a good night’s sleep; I began reading it after awakening shortly before 3:00 AM one morning, expecting to drift off in a few minutes, and eventually noticed that I was somewhere around page 250 and the time was after 6:00 AM. This sort of thing has not happened to me more than a handful of times in a half-century of reading, and I read a lot.
Other reviews have included – well, not exactly spoilers, but more specifics about the events in the novel than I intend to provide here. I will mention three things that I think it useful for prospective readers to know, and then use the general thrust of the novel as a springboard for extended commentary of my own.
First, those who self-identify as Democrats, liberals, or progressives should certainly be forewarned that every such character in this novel, major or minor, is portrayed as a brigand or a fool. (To paraphrase a well-known slogan: I report, you decide.)
Second, the attack on the US that provides the setup for the novel’s action has three parts. One is, unsurprisingly, an EMP strike. Another is similar to the first, but aimed in such a way as to decapitate national leadership. The third is straight out of the Einstein–Szilárd letter: “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Two of the three parts of the attack succeed; to find out which two, you’ll have to read the book.
Third, persons with an aversion to reading lots of cussing might need to skip this book. No sex scenes, though.
And now for my customary barrage of disclaimers before following through on the aforementioned threat of extended commentary. Bill Quick obviously worked very hard on this book and is widely acknowledged as a subject-matter expert on disaster preparation. He is probably smarter than me and certainly far more knowledgeable about the hardware required for off-grid survival. None of what follows is intended to impugn either his accomplishments or his motivations.
I nonetheless offer what I think of as a more nuanced set of predictions:
0. As regular readers know all too well, I subscribe to a cyclical theory of American history which predicts a “secular crisis,” designated the “Crisis of 2020,” not occurring in a single year, but in the sense that the Great Depression and World War II could be said to have constituted the “Crisis of 1940.” To that extent, I find much of the novel’s near-future setting entirely plausible; the Crisis of 2020 is obviously already underway, and seems certain to involve both a domestic economic component (in progress) and a geopolitical military component (which, if I had to guess, will indeed begin in the year specified in the novel). Given the technologies available, the urge many people feel to somehow escape the next world war is entirely understandable.
1. Where I first part ways with the novel’s scenario is in its – probably necessary, if only due to considerations of length – portrayal of a relative uniformity of effects. An entire region of the US is rendered, with only minor exceptions, utterly uninhabitable, and the remainder of the country is, again almost completely, hit very hard; total casualties are projected to be a noticeable fraction of the population.
The actual situation in the event of such an attack, however, would be significantly more complex, for physical – but also sociological – reasons. Physically, due to characteristics of both the electrical grid and soil types, EMP effects will vary widely on scales as small as tens of kilometers. In the northeastern US in particular, a surprising number of virtually unaffected counties could form a sort of checkerboard pattern among those that lose electric power for two years or more.
The sociological issue is touchier. There is something to the progressive critique of American inequality; they of course fail in prescribing Federal action to alleviate it – the DC metro is already, and notoriously, the wealthiest in the country, Versailles-on-the-Potomac – but differences in net worth, in particular, vary enormously on surprisingly small scales. In the metro area I live in, there are entire square miles in the inner city with less aggregate wealth than single households in the tonier areas. I lack progressive credentials; I strongly believe these inequities to be an emergent property of the overall system, an artifact of culture and especially generational temperament rather than anything readily meliorated by the proper legislation. The Silent Generation (birth years 1925-42) was deeply concerned with equality. The first wave of the baby boomers (’43-’51) was somewhat less so, the last-wave boomers (’52-’60, which includes me) much less so, and the Gen Xers (’61-’81) scarcely at all. [All dates from Strauss and Howe, and note that these are cultural, not demographic, generations, thus the departure from the usual ’46-’64 definition for the boomers.]
So, to bring this home, and I encourage readers to plug analogous neighborhoods in their own cities into this paragraph, the east side of KC – which as I commented recently, has a homicide rate around 80 per 100,000 per year, so high as to be characteristic of failed states elsewhere in the world – might very well experience a population crash from starvation and disease, while southern Johnson County on the Kansas side lost 1% or less of its people. And that is likely to be true even if the physical infrastructure of both areas is equally affected. Relative wealth connotes many other kinds of preparedness and resiliency, including the psychological.
The implications of all this are that refugee movements in large (six-digit) numbers but on short (much less than the range of a single tank of fuel in an automobile) distance scales will need to be dealt with in many places, simultaneously. A significant revival of Civil Defense seems in order, as well as general improvements in civil society, about which more below.
2. I strongly believe that recovery will be, for some industries in some places, surprisingly rapid, contrary to the novel’s portrayal of (almost) uniform prostration for an indefinite period. The real-world example is obviously Cantor Fitzgerald, seemingly annihilated on 9/11/2001 but fully operational before the end of that week. To generalize, all data centers of large organizations have disaster-recovery sites, sometimes in deliberately undisclosed locations. They certainly know about EMP. Not all will succeed, of course – see the point about inequality vs uniformity above – but many will. Given that nuclei of recovery will attract refugees (assuming situational awareness, which people have a way of acquiring), we are again back to the civil defense / overall health of civil society issue.
3. Now to veer sharply in a nonobvious but, if I may say so, rather insightful direction: suppose there were an existing society in which the electrical grid chronically malfunctions, there is no regular supply of potable water, availability of motorized transport is scant, malnutrition is a constant backdrop, and a variety of illnesses (often vector-borne) are at pandemic levels.
According to the survivalist/prepper model, the inhabitants of that society should be dying in heaps, not least from slaughtering one another. Furthermore, the safest people in that society should be the most remote, studiously avoiding human contact and devoting their energies to becoming, and remaining, entirely self-reliant.
But that society does exist, and in it, other than a tiny elite, the largest number of people living in some (admittedly by North American standards rather slight) comfort are those with the greatest degree of interaction with others. The worst off, at imminent risk of death, are the rural isolates – and the wealthiest elites are not found in the deep countryside, but on the very outskirts of the largest city in the nation. Also, there’s no slaughtering going on.
Well, that’s Haïti, and my time there over the past three years has convinced me that the oft-extolled strategy of holing up somewhere as far away from other people as you can get, with everything you think you’re going to need, is nothing more than elaborate and painful suicide. In a decade or two, someone will find your bones in your hideout and wonder what the hell you could possibly have been thinking.
4. A detailed course of action does not derive from this, but the general answer, upon which we must elaborate for our individual situations and with which readers of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist will be familiar, is the exact opposite of isolation and self-reliance: trade and specialization. As Julian Simon masterfully documented, people are the ultimate resource. In anticipation of a significant disruptive event, therefore, we would do well to look toward (to borrow a term) community organizing. How well do you know your neighbors, and what can you offer them, whether material or informational, in trade?
To be clear, I do think that some geographical locations are worse than others. Be wary of resource constraints, and especially of a lack of redundancy. Areas with few roads (and no interstate highways), few reliable water sources, and a low number of high-voltage generator step-up transformers per capita seem likely to be particularly problematic. As implied above, low-population-density areas will be most vulnerable, and will recover last. Cities will recover first.
5. To return to the topic of emergent behavior: a healthier and more resilient, ideally even an antifragile society, must be built up from healthier priorities and actions on the part of its individual members. My critiques above notwithstanding, “Lightning Fall” is ultimately a salutary attempt to encourage individual preparation for otherwise poorly-managed risks to civilization stemming from exogenous violence. If enough people think this through and prepare properly – which as I have argued, usually means preparing in, with, and for your existing neighborhood – the recovery time may be reduced by a full order of magnitude. The hardest thing will not be procuring and installing hardware or even acquiring unfamiliar skills; it will be inculcating the proper attitude and values in the population to keep too many people from ending up dying alone in worthless hideouts, when they could have been thriving and helping others to thrive in large communities. We need some engineers, but we really need some evangelists.
6. I must also mention a “stretch objective,” as we say in Corporate America – in this case, a deliberate tendency to move toward the sound of gunfire, metaphorical or otherwise; to prepare not only for your immediate vicinity, but for the eventuality of large, nearby refugee movements, and perhaps even to work in a nearby community that has obvious vulnerabilities. This may mean volunteering with a Community Emergency Response Team, or in a ministry that works in distressed areas. It will certainly not be something everyone is capable of doing, for many reasons, some more forgivable than others (viewing your fellow human beings primarily as a source of problems would be one of the less forgivable ones).
7. Finally, liberal patriotism is a complex – and, no doubt, somewhat self-contradictory – phenomenon, but complex with a dash of self-contradiction ≠ nonexistent, and I cannot merely dismiss it as unhelpful. The defense of civilization will cross ideological boundaries in surprising ways. This point could easily be expanded into a full-length post, but I’d certainly want to talk it over with a few of my liberal friends first.