The end of the world as we know it—Review: One Second After by William Forstchen

A bomb goes off high above the earth, and one second after, the world ends—not in a bang but a whimper.

book_coverWilliam Forstchen’s brilliantly disturbing book, One Second After, takes place in a post-apocalyptic America. The country has been brought to its knees by three nuclear missiles launched by unknown foes. The power of the attack comes not from the blasts themselves but from the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) it emits.

An EMP, Forstchen points out, could completely knock out America’s electrical infrastructure. Miles and miles of high-tension wires would absorb the power of the EMP, magnifying it beyond the ability of virtually any circuit-breaker to stop. Electrical systems would overload. Anything with delicate electrical circuitry—like cars, computers, and even calculators—would be fried.

And in Forstchen’s world, America without power would be hell on earth.

“We’re back a hundred and fifty years,” one character says.

“No, not a hundred and fifty years,” says another. “Make it more like five hundred. People alive in 1860, they knew how to live in that time; they had the infrastructure. We don’t. Turn off the lights, stop the toilets from getting water to flush, empty the pharmacy, turn off the television to tell us what to do…. We were like sheep for slaughter then.”

One Second After is not a cheerful novel, nor should it be. Forstchen wrote the novel as a cautionary tale against the threat of an EMP attack. Nearly every desperate situation a reader could imagine—and many that readers couldn’t imagine—unfolds in the book.

Forstchen unveils one small horror after another. How do you keep the water in your swimming pool potable? What do you do with the family dog when you’ve run out of food to eat? What do you do with the thief you’ve shot dead in the middle of the kitchen? What do you do for your diabetic daughter when all the insulin is gone?

What do you do when the strong begin to prey on the weak? How do you maintain law and order when civilization becomes uncivilized?

Although many readers would like to think the better angels of our natures would shine through in a time of national crisis, Forstchen draws from past historical situations—like the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad in World War Two—to show just how low mankind will sink in times of desperation.

The story never goes “Mad Max.” Forstchen wisely keeps events plausible, no matter how terrible they seem. He does create a nagging feeling, though, that things could get even worse than his story suggests.

The entire time, Forstchen beats the same drum: America is virtually unprepared to defend itself against an EMP attack. Communities are unprepared. Individuals are unprepared. Unprepared. Unprepared. Unprepared.

Although the book may be a warning first, it’s a compelling piece of fiction in its own right. The characters are well-crafted and add dramatic weight to the story. The novel’s protagonist, John Matherson, is a college history professor who works at a small, Christian liberal arts school in the western North Carolina mountains. He’s a fictionalized Forstchen who provides context and insights into events as they unfold, and he also serves as the moral foundation for the story, too.

Forstchen writes what he knows, so the entire community of Black Mountain, N.C., feels at once homey and heartbroken. He populates the community with people who could all be out of a Norman Rockwell painting—except Rod Serling starts to tinker with them as the story progresses.

The grim reality Forstchen shows in One Second After demonstrates the high cost of unpreparedness. He wants to spook readers into doing something—anything—whether they start stockpiling supplies just in case or they write to ask their Congressman to take an interest in the issue.

“This is an issue that doesn’t have a constituency,” Forstchen said. “What I hope I’ve done is put a voice to it.”

One Second After makes that voice, and that message, worth listening to.

6 replies »

  1. OK wait, wait … I hear tell that a nuclear EMP would only disrupt local electronics, similar to electric storms, and that it would take many coordinated detonations to suddenly wipe out the whole USA infrastructure. Whatʻs the truth of this? Any physicists out there who can ʻsplain? …

    • How nasty an EMP is depends on where it’s detonated. Ground and low altitude detonations are relatively benign as far as EMP goes. Blow one up in space where the energy flux will hit the atmosphere and where the detonation screws with the Earth’s magnetic field and suddenly things get a lot more nasty. I’ve read in the last day that the higher the nuke is, the broader the swath of destruction its EMP will be, so one of the questions I now have is what’s the altitude that North Korean and Iranian missiles can be expected to reach.

      And apparently the claim that even a relatively small nuke can be pretty devastating is likely accurate. EMP power goes up as the square root of the yield of the bomb (and fission weapons are actually better EMP generators than thermonuclear ones), and so a 2 megaton bomb would have 50% of effect of an 8 megaton bomb – and a 100 kiloton bomb would still have 11% of the power of that 8 megaton bomb. That could be the difference between 10,000 V/m or 1,000 V/m on a power line, but that’s still a HUGE amount of current that long wire would create as a result of the voltage.

      I think there’s a couple of self-limiting factors here that would sort of help protect some of the critical infrastructure. First, I think that the voltage difference would be enough to arc from the lines to the transmission towers and ground out. I’m not sure of this one, though – it depends on how that voltage actually shows up on the line. If this does happen, though, the protection of the transformers on either end of the line would be much easier. And there’s a chance that the main line transformers at substations would survive and not need to be replaced.

      I’m more comfortable saying that the high voltage will induce a massive current that will cause the line to sag, maybe burst into flame, and quite possibly melt. This will limit the damage slightly as the current would be limited by the failure of the transmission line. Whether this is fast enough to prevent damage to the transformers on the ends is a damn good question, though.

      Either way the HVAC lines will need to be replaced – most of several hundred thousand miles of them. But that’s probably still easier and faster (and cheaper) than replacing the substation transformers.

  2. I feel of all the man-made disasters possible, an EMP attack is most likely in America. Fotschen is right — America is completely unprepared and vulnerable. The chilling reality is that for an enemy of the US, instead of spending billions of dollars to go to war against us, could alternatively invest in a nuclear warhead and a scud missile, detonate it above the nation, and watch as America folds in on itself. That way all our natural resources will still be intact and they could come and clean up afterwards. Not a pleasant thought, but a reality that we should indeed prepare for, individually and as a nation.

  3. I was wondering how to prioritze potential disasters, which are legion these days. Thanks, Kellene of Preparedness Pro, for your opinion.

  4. But let’s look on the bright side. That 401K you cashed out? Good move. Worried about paying off your Mastercard? Don’t. Owe the IRS some money? Good luck to them trying to find you. Dad doesn’t have ESPN anymore? Time to spend a few more hours each day with the kids. It would mean the final end of Michael Jackson coverage, we would neither know nor care which of the Brady Bunch Maureen McCormick still has a grudge against, and in order to put up with an asshole like me, you’d have to encounter me face-to-face. We would all have to learn how to speak to each other without the assistance of all that electronic crap. Yeah, I could do it. I don’t tweet, I don’t have a facebook accont, and somebody stole my i-pod. No electricity or running water would remind me of growing up in Tennessee. Let’s do it. Let’s do it just for fun! Who’s with me?

  5. The biggest threat of an EMP isn’t from Iran or N. Korea, the notion that they could launch a nuclear warhead and it travel half way across planet earth to explode above us isn’t likely, stop watching so much FOX news. The big threat is the sun. Scientist estimate that every 150 years the sun erupts a massive flare that can wipe out all electronics on earth if it occurs when the magnetic poles of the earth and the sun are in alignment. The earth and sun just entered an 11 year cycle where our poles are in alignment. Not too mention we are long overdue for a massive flare that would be the equivalent of hitting the reset button on planet earth.