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