Let me begin this review by confessing that I never heard of E.M.P. (Electromagnetic Pulse), and I was distressed to learn that its destructive potential has been readily acknowledged by both the Pentagon and the White House (Newt Gingrich wrote the forward for this novel). According to the author, the public’s ignorance of the threat posed by this silent enemy is largely due to the fact that the first information about the destructive potential of E.M.P. was released on the same day that the final report on the 9/11 catastrophe appeared in the media. In short, the horrors attending the fall of the Twin Towers so totally dominated the news (as well as the imagination of the American public) that readers paid scant attention to a new “theoretical danger.”
Briefly defined, E.M.P. represents a nuclear weapons strategy which would render an entire country helpless by simply destroying that country’s computer technology. In theory, a nuclear missile designed to detonate some 20 miles above the surface of the designated country (in this fictional enactment, it is over Kansas) would simply “erase” all computer-dependent technology. Within one second of the explosion, a shock wave would short-circuit every electrical device that it touched. In-flight planes would crash, all motorized vehicles would stop, and all communications (TV, radio, telephones) would cease. The country’s inhabitants would be unaware of what had happened until they encountered the consequences (stalled cars, dead phones and the silence attending the loss of mass communications).
In order to graphically demonstrate the devastation of such an attack, author Forstchen has created a novel in which the inhabitants of a small town (Black Mountain, N.C.) fight for survival in the aftermath of an E.M.P. attack. The first evidence that something is amiss is the stalled traffic on I-40. As the town ceases to function, the first causalities occur in hospitals where patients are on life support. Early fatalities include individuals with pacemakers and individuals dependent on dialysis. Diabetics and cancer patients are immediately “at risk.” Schools and nursing homes, now without air conditioning, electricity or refrigeration quickly become unsanitary and unsafe.
As concerns about food and drinking water increase, looting and theft become commonplace. Within three days, the local stores have been raided and the desperate civic officials have implemented martial law. Money becomes worthless and Black Mountain gradually reverts to a barter system in which bullets, cigarettes and canned goods become mediums of exchange. (Ten .22 bullets for a rabbit, two bullets for a cigarette, etc.)
John Matherson, the protagonist of One Second After (like author Forstchen), has military experience and teaches at Montreat-Anderson College. Matherson had given up a promising military career when he decided to bring his ailing wife home to Black Mountain. Following the death of his wife, this history instructor and veteran of Desert Storm had become one of the most popular citizens of the small town. When disaster strikes the town calls on him to assist in developing a survival strategy. In a matter of days, he and a few civic leaders are rationing food and water, patrolling the Interstate, collecting firearms and mobilizing vehicles that function without computer technology (pre-1970s). One of the town’s most valuable vehicles is a Ford Edsel!
The greatest threat to the town’s inhabitants proves to be the ignorance produced by the information vacuum. Although it is evident that the United States has been attacked, no one knows the identity of the enemy – Iran? North Korea? China? Unanswered questions include: Is the war over? Who won? What is going on in the rest of the world?
In conjunction with the unknown fate of America, Black Mountain and other small towns in the region find themselves coping with great numbers of people arriving from Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Atlanta. Within a matter of weeks, Old Fort, Marion, Morganton and Asheville are reduced to embattled fiefdoms that strive with little success to maintain cooperative relationships with other towns while attempting to deflect migrating hordes and protect their supplies, such as food and water and medication.
A sustained level of tension and suspense in One Second After is produced by Forstchen’s stark portrayal of the town’s speedy descent into brutal savagery. As John Matheson and the civic leaders of Black Mountain struggle to maintain the basic principles that created this country, they are repeatedly forced to acknowledge that civilization’s fragile veneer is being stripped away. Reports begin to arrive concerning murderous armies composed of thousands of armed and desperate individuals that are moving steadily toward Western North Carolina. The largest group, called the Posse, are “practicing cannibals” and have left a terrifying wake of rape, murder and ruin behind them. According to rumor, a similar group (a self-styled cult) is approaching from Tennessee.
Before One Second After has run its course, John Matherson finds all of his most cherished principles challenged. Certainly, he had not foreseen the painful decisions he would face as the town’s military advisor. Not only does he condone the killing of “invaders;” he serves as executioner. In time he even assists in converting his beloved college into a military base where his former students serve as the last barrier between the Posse and his town. He watches loved ones die of starvation and implements policies that result in the willful withholding of food and medication for individuals who are fated to die anyway (triage).
There is a daunting message in this novel. One Second After is a cautionary tale. The worst horrors depicted here (and there are many) are simply projections based on countless studies of what could happen to the United States should it suddenly lose all of its complex technical advances in one blinding flash. We are a pampered country, says William R. Forstchen, coddled by a great web of technical marvels. Take them away and we are heartbreakingly vulnerable — so vulnerable that 80 percent of us would perish before we could adapt to a world without technology.
One Second After by William R. Forstchen. A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2010. 349 pages