Who would have thought a book that’s immensely popular with the Doomsday Preppers would make it to the New York Times best seller lists? One Second After, by William Forstchen, did exactly that, and it stayed there for 12 weeks in 2009. The bones of this post apocalyptic story are familiar, but the event that sets the story in motion is fresh and well researched.
The story takes place in a small town, located in the western North Carolina mountains. Its a picture postcard vision of semi rural life. The critical event is a nuclear EMP attack. For those not familiar with the latest in nuclear weapon technology, Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP, is generated by all nuclear weapons. It’s also possible to design a weapon to maximize this effect. Such a device would be purpose built to destroy power grids and electronics while causing little other damage.
An EMP strike by a motivated nuclear power is possible. The list of countries that could develop such a device can be counted with your fingers. Delivering the weapon while defeating the US missile defense, and without suffering a nuclear counterattack is also complex. A successful attack requires the device be detonated between 250 and 300 miles up. Outside the atmosphere. So this is definitely not a terrorist weapon.
The US does not have a great record when it comes to surprise attacks, Pearl Harbor and 911 at the top of the list. Let’s just say that the scenario depicted in One Second After is a remote possibility. Extraordinarily remote.
The effects of a sophisticated EMP attack are more or less accurately depicted in the book, but taken to the extreme. Electromagnetic Pulse is a line of sight phenomena, so equipment that’s underground, perhaps in parking garages or shielded in other ways, would be less affected, perhaps not affected at all. The effect is to generate a massive power surge in sensitive electronic components. Integrated circuits are most vulnerable, your classic 1957 Chevy, not so much. The power spike is so rapid that common surge protectors and fuses are ineffective.
It’s beside the point to argue these details since the focus of the story is about what happens after a rapid collapse of our technical infrastructure. The story concerns itself with how people deal with one of the worst possible events we can imagine, not whether your car will still work.
Once the electrical grid is down, communications are gone. Suddenly, the world has stepped back 150 years, but without the infrastructure that was available then. There are no steam locomotives, and a definite shortage of horses. In this scenario, horses, cattle and pigs will likely be extinct within weeks.
There is no refrigeration. People that depend on insulin and other critical medications will die. The local pharmacy will not be resupplied. Food for the coming winter is what you have in the cupboard. Water has to be boiled. The consequence of every error in judgment or a bad decision can be death.
People have to start thinking on a different level. Is your home defensible? How about your town? Do you admit new people to your group? Under what circumstances?
Small towns like Black Mountain, where One Second After takes place, are a good place to hunker down. But can you get in? There are literally millions of people who have become refugees, wandering the roads looking for shelter and food. Are there enough rifles and ammo to secure your town from the refugees, raiders and criminals? Is the biggest danger from the roaming bandits, or from inside your group?
Think about it, sixty to ninety days out, you haven’t had a meal in weeks, your body weight is now half what it was before the disaster. You’re boiling grass for soup. Do you kill your dog and eat it, or kill your neighbors and eat them?
That’s the real heart of this story. The choices. Does everyone horde food, or do they share it as communal property? What to do with criminals? Keeping them in jail and feeding them is out of the question.
The important lesson is about how we keep our moral compass when impossible life and death decisions have to be made, and enforced, every day.
In spite of being a little preachy, and populating the town with way too many ex-military types, Forstchen spins an interesting yarn about digging deep within ourselves and surviving, without giving up civilization.
If you like the post-apocalyptic genre, this is a classic tale. One you have to have on your bookshelf. Or better yet, you can go green and check it out from the library, as I did.