David Crawford's Lights Out is one of a constellation of underground post-apocalyptic novels written by American authors in recent years, catering to the prepper / survivalist subculture, which is primarily libertarian in nature, in line with the American tradition of individual freedom, of which the right to bear arms is an auxiliary belief.
Written between 2003 and 2006, Crawford's novel began life much like those by Dickens, only serialised in a blog as opposed to a periodical. It is claimed that once it was made available as a PDF, the file was downloaded millions of times. It was finally published as a print book in 2010.
Lights Out falls into the subset of apocalyptic fiction that explores the EMP scenario: an event takes place that knocks out all electronics throughout the United States, causing society quickly to fall apart. Like Fortschen's One Second After, which I reviewed in 2013, this novel focuses on what a man, his family, and his community do in order to survive. In many ways, the two novels are very similar, but Crawford has more faith in the community and none whatsoever in the Federal government. Crawford's novel is also vastly longer, spanning 600 pages in tightly packed print in trade paperback format, and focuses on the detail of ensuring the health and survival of a community, based in Silver Hills, a subdivision outside of San Antonio, Texas, rather than a grim transformation from pampered consummers to born-again American pioneers. Unlike Fortschen's novel, there are plenty of guns and shoot-outs along the way.
Crawford is certainly not a literary writer. His prose is functional and his narration fastidiously prolix, although he can turn a ringing phrase every now and then. All the same, for some reason he manages to keep the reader ensnared the story, to the point that, hundreds of thousands of words later, one is sorry to be reaching the end of the novel. He also succeeds in planting events that have significance later on. There is plenty of tension, which builds as the story converges towards its climactic confrontation. And, though his characters are very stereotyped, they are sufficiently human for this not to become a nuisance. In fact, Crawford displays psychological insight, at least when it comes to the way men deal with men.
The story begins with the event itself. Mark Turner, the main character and an accountant, is at the office, working on his computer, when the lights go out. The dialogue is a little forced, clumsy, and unnatural at first, but Crawford does a good job at taking us through the unfolding scenario from that single point of origin, expanding the story in ever-widening circles, adding more and more characters, as the event's implications come into play. Throughout, the reader is left as much in the dark as the characters are: without electronics, it becomes difficult to obtain information, and the latter's sources are subjective, limited, and unreliable. The characters are all groping in the dark at first, initially thinking the power will be restored quickly, and then gradually realising—in the midst of chronic uncertainty—to what extent things have changed and, more importantly, to what extent they will have to change.
One amusing element in the story is the perception of the central government authorities as clueless, useless, and lying. Initially, the President goes on air via the emergency broadcasts, which Turner can pick up via a wind-up radio (why the electronics of that device survived the EMP is not explained), and declares that the power will be restored 'in two or three days'. As time passes, this timeframe is pushed further and further back, until all timeframes are abandoned, replaced instead by ever more stringent security measures. Martial law is declared, movement is restricted, and so on. As the days go by, Turner comes to realise that the government is simply attempting to keep people calm with deception to buy itself time while officials figure out what to do. Any faith he may have had in the government's ability to restore power is lost fairly quickly—the presidential broadcasts soon become 'more of the same', until they are forgotten altogether, obviously irrelevant.
The truth is that replacing the damaged electronics would take years, even with people working flat out, and their ability to do so would be hampered by the fact that, without power, no replacement electronics can be made. At best, any return to the electronic age would be in small pockets and over a period of years. The implication at the end of the novel is that recovery takes a generation.
Crawford exhibits commendable restraint by abstaining from the sort of speechifying that afflicts fiction in this particular subgenre. Indeed, we don't ever find out whether the EMP was caused by, for example, a solar flare or human agency. In the end, as the social order begins to crumble, the cause becomes unimportant: it cannot be undone; what matters is adapting to the new reality. And the message—obvious—is that one would have to be pro-active, self-reliant, and community-oriented, or else you will lose your property, your freedom, and your life.
The descent into anarchy is not instantaneous, as happens in Alex Scarrow's Last Light, a novel about the sudden end of oil. In Lights Out it takes over a period weeks. Initially, people are still able to shop at their local supermarket, but, with transportation very limited—only pre-1980s vehicles work—it becomes ever more difficult for the haulage industry to refuel and resupply, so supermarkets end up imposing restrictions per head, leading to growing queues, theft, and robbery. Once the food and the water runs out, cities become increasingly dangerous, sites of looting, gang blight, and gun law. Of course, the army, the National Guard, and FEMA are deployed, but they cannot manage to maintain order.
In fact, they cannot even manage to protect private property: the government urges people to abandon their homes and report to FEMA-run refugee centres, give up their guns, and remain there until further notice. These are all capital offences from the traditional American point of view; private property, individual freedom, and the right to bear arms are sacred cornerstones of the American identity.
It goes without saying that for Turner this would have never been an option, even if, having rejected an offer to join his employer's compound early on, he hadn't already organised his neighbours into arming themselves, stocking up, and fortifying Silver Hills. The latter undergoes radical change during the course of the book, in response to evolving conditions, going from suburban development to self-sufficient, fortified village. At first a couple of lone guards are posted at the entrance; by the end there are watch towers, ditches, armed patrols, observation points, and even army-style training for the security details. Everyone has to share and pitch in, irrespective of gender or age, for, in the new reality, no man, woman, or child can afford to be an island.
The inevitable tension between communitarianism and individual liberty is resolved in a very American way: residents of Silver Hills are free to do as they like, but, if wish to survive, it becomes clearly in their rational interest to sacrifice their individual wants and desires on behalf of the community. The choice is there in theory, but has already been made in practice. Needless to say that there are plenty of hard choices to be made, not to mention loss of life—the American conservative mind loves sobering realities: once the country descends into chaos, the cities become ruins, and city-dwellers begin traversing the countryside, as beggars, robbers, or scavengers, the old rules no longer apply. You own only what you can defend by force, at the point of a gun.
Despite its apocalyptic nature and the constant sense of external threat, Lights Out is neither a despairing lament nor a cynical remonstrance. Rather, it is an exaltation of the 'can-do', 'hands-on' attitude. The characters are not righteous superheroes with extraordinary skills and never-ending good luck; they are ordinary individuals who are thrown into an extraordinary situation and must muddle their way through, making mistakes and taking loses. Indeed, Turner, though displaying courage on more than one occasion, is one who reacts to danger, rather than one who seeks it or revels in it; fortunately, he reacts well and thus becomes an accidental or reluctant hero. Similarly, though respected by his wife and children, and enjoying authority among them and his community, it is his wife who usually gets her way in domestic matters, running circles around her husband. He also has difficulty with one of his neighbours, who is strong on feminist values. Turner is a modest, unpretentious fellow with a lot on his mind, who simply desires the safety of his family.
One has to wonder, however, whether Crawford is overly optimistic in the way he unfolds his scenario. I tend to think that in such circumstances social order would break down a lot faster and that people would be more selfish and short-sighted, finally coming round late and only when they have their backs to the wall. Certainly, the folk of Silver Hills all—save for one—seem unusually decent, friendly, unselfish, and cooperative. It is in their rational interest to be so, the author may argue, but people are so often irrational.
Then again, I suspect Crawford's aim is to show what you could do if faced with a range of possible situations arising from an EMP.