Over the holiday I read the 2010 novel Lights Out by David Crawford.
In this novel, which he originally distributed via the internet and only subsequently published as a paperback, Crawford takes us on a speculative journey, allowing us to imagine what might happen if an electromagnetic pulse hits the United States and disrupts the nation’s electricity and fries the components of most electronic and computer devices, including modern vehicles.
He sets his tale in a semi-rural subdivision outside of San Antonio, Texas. The main character Mark “Karate Man” Turner and his best friend Jim are at work when an EMP flashes the US and everything just… dies.
The story starts slowly, mimicking the pace of the population who are sluggish in their response to the unfolding crisis. Initially, people believe the disruption is temporary, and they focus on getting home from their jobs and replenishing their groceries. Most of them want to believe the president, who tells the nation in nightly radio addresses that the government is working to restore power.
Mark and Jim, however, are skeptical, especially after hearing rumors from people at utility companies and the sheriff that things may be worse than they think. They reach out to their neighbors in Silver Hills, working to build a sense of community. Starting with pumping water from his well for the residents who have none, and coordinating trips into the city for groceries using the handful of vehicles that still run, Mark gets to know the people who live around him.
When the power doesn’t get restored, people throughout the region become increasingly desperate for food and resources, and many turn to violence. The government responds by forcing many into FEMA shelters. Mark recognizes the need for his community to stay together and avoid losing their homes to either federal forces or violent gangs roaming the streets. He and his friends begin to organize and train their neighbors in various forms of self-defense and self-sufficiency, all of which become increasingly important for their survival as time goes on.
The reader gets significant insight into Mark’s character, including his motivations, fears and weaknesses. We see through his eyes how the greater society falls apart and the ensuing violence forces people to take actions they would usually disavow.
As a novel, Lights Out has its flaws. It starts off a bit slow and the first part read as a daily diary of what happened each day, with often little of note. Stronger editing could have improved the pacing for this section, but at the same time, one could make an argument that the pacing was intentional as it suggests how reluctant people would be to take action in the event of an emergency. As things become more dire, everything happens at once, and the story flies… much like it would in real life.
Since it was first published on the internet, many have recommended the book for its realistic portrayal of a significant societal collapse and its aftermath. It shows that something as simple as the loss of electricity and the internet can have severe consequences for those unprepared for catastrophe. As you read the book, it’s impossible not to wonder what you would do in similar circumstances, and look around your home with an eye to improving your personal preparations (speaking for myself, it scared the crap out of me!). While it’s not a survival manual by any stretch, it does shed light on what might happen if a disaster occurred, and leaves little to the imagination about what might occur if you had to leave your home or face going to a FEMA shelter. It’s also a parable on the importance of community, teamwork and leadership.
Visit the official Lights Out website.
Order Lights Out from Amazon.com (affiliate link for Surviving the Modern World, with proceeds supporting this blog).