One Second After
William R. Forstchen
(New York: Forge, 2009)
One Second After is a post-apocalyptic novel by American author and military historian, William R. Forstchen, who uses it to explore the likely effects on a small community of a high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which causes an intense, high-velocity surge that destroys all electrical and electronic systems.
John Matherson is a professor of history and retired U.S. Army Colonel, with, even if one stretches definitions, only the briefest of combat experience. A widower, he resides on a hill, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, a small town with a 600-student-strong college and a smattering of small shops, which has become a popular Summer hideaway for city dwellers. Matherson has two daughters, Jennifer (12) and Elizabeth (16), the younger of which suffers from type 1 diabetes. Matherson, though not native to the region, is well respected in the community.
The story begins on Jennifer’s 12th birthday, just before the festivities. It is mid-afternoon. Jennifer has brought along a friend from school and other kids have been invited, though they have yet to arrive. Already present is Jen, Matherson’s mother-in-law, who has arrived in her 1959 Ford Edsel. They are all conversing, listening to music, or chatting on the telephone, when all electrical items suddenly die, including Mathersons mobile while he is in mid conversation. He assumes there has been a power outage and that the battery on his mobile died at the same time. A little later Jennifer and her friend notice that all the vehicles along the interstate traversing the landscape half a mile in front of them are motionless, as are the vehicles on the older motorway running alongside the interstate; also noticed is the utter silence: normally, the interstate generated a constant roar in the distance. Matherson finds it strange, but tells the girls there must have been accident that backed up the traffic. They carry on with the birthday celebration as normal, and are only a little disappointed that no one shows up. The power remains out for the rest of the evening.
The ‘power outage’, it turns out, has also taken out Matherson’s car—not a light on the dashboard when the ignition key is turned. The Edsel, however, works. When Matherson drives down to the town, he discovers that all electrical devises, including all motor vehicles, there are also dead. The only exception, besides the Edsel, are a handful of very old cars. With his military experience, Matherson begins to suspect, and eventually realises, that the United States has experienced an EMP attack. The attackers are unknown.
The rest of the novel deals with the consequences. These are staged at increasingly long intervals, each chapter (except Chapter Ten) dealing with a phase in the social breakdown and the assertion of the new reality. We are first shown what happens a day out, a few days out, a week out, two weeks out, a month out, two months out, four months out, and a year out. In the process, we follow the characters as their region descents from a state of taken-for-granted technological civilisation to a Dark Age of barbarism, superstition, and cannibalism. The population is decimated: at first there is chaos, unrest, looting, and murder; when martial law is imposed, some order is restored, but leaders are forced to make hard decisions, which involve allowing many to die of starvation or die of still treatable illnesses in order to save those who have the greatest chance of survival and can perform useful work. Usable vehicles are confiscated. A militia is organised. The golf course is turned into a graveyard. Public executions are re-introduced. Food is rationed, and the rations are progressively reduced and adulterated with sawdust until most are on 900 calories a day, though it is secretly arranged for the militia to get more. All the livestock is eaten. The forests are hunted clean. Folk eat their pets. And so on. Meanwhile, the cities are devastated by gangs and looters, and fall into ruins. Once ball-busting female executives—their skills, like those of most urban professionals, now irrelevant—prostitute themselves for a bowl of soup. Cults and warlords emerge, full of apocalyptic rhetoric and predatory ferocity. Naturally, this entire time Black Mountain is virtually isolated: with no means of communication with the outside world, the federal government is assumed to have collapsed; with no prospect of help, the community is forced to exist behind barricades, beset by all manner of external threats.
Scraps of information make it through to the Edsel’s ancient radio, which runs on vacuum tubes unaffected by the pulse: a radio station—Voice of America—suddenly appears. It seems the EMP was caused by three nuclear weapons launched from cargo ships. There was aid coming from other nations. The attackers remained unidentified. Otherwise, the broadcasts stay upbeat, with talk of reconstruction, recovery, and aid. It all sounds too remote, however, and Matherson remains sceptical.
Matherson, who over time assumes leadership of the community as the established authority dies off, does a good job in keeping his family and Black Mountain together, though Jennifer eventually dies, and Elizabeth becomes pregnant by her 17-year-old boyfriend, who then also dies. His moral authority prevents a full-scale descent into barbarism, though the world has thrust upon him and the survivors a harsh and unforgiving order, where there is no room for sentimentality, waste, or uselessness. Only ruthless pragmatism, adaptability, and resourcefulness can keep a person alive. The best they can do is revive or retrofit a handful of archaic technology—for example, an old switchboard is found, and they manage to get a single telephone line working, with rotary telephones.
By the time novel ends, just a small fraction of the population survives. It is all flint-eyed, dirty, bearded; all skin and bone. Black Mountain is mostly derelict, there being too few people alive or strong enough to remove fallen trees, repair ruined infrastructure, or even bury their dead (they are eventually burnt in pyres). The few antique vehicles still running have their days counted, since the little fuel that remains is increasingly contaminated. In short, conditions have returned, more or less, and at least in the provinces, to those of the frontier and pioneering days.
In the final pages, the U.S. Army makes an appearance, stopping by Black Mountain on their way to Ashville, where they will establish control and coordinate with the rest of the region. Matherson is told that New York was a ghost city, with only 25,000 people surviving on garbage, sealed off from the outside; that the United States has broken up, with the South West and Texas being reclaimed by Mexico, and the East Coast being occupied by Chinese troops, ostensibly there for aid purposes, but clearly with no intention of ever pulling out; that there only 30 million people left in the United States; and that, for morale purposes, the Voice of America told only part of the story—there was some reconstruction, but the old United States was forever gone, and it was now a matter of salvaging the little that was left. Whoever the attackers were, it made no difference now: the attackers won.
This is a typical ‘warning’ novel. Its whole purpose is to alert Americans of the price that would be paid should the government not adequately prepare for an EMP attack. In the novel, the United States government knew it as a theoretical possibility, but never acted to harden the nation’s infrastructure against an EMP: there were other, less abstruse, less expensive, more media-friendly issues for politicians to play their popularity contest with, such as global warming and ‘going green’. There is also a criticism of ordinary Americans, who in the novel are deemed to have become soft, spoilt, wasteful, sentimental, and distracted by a society in which superabundance, convenience, automation, medicine, and technology made life easy and comfortable; living in a just-in-time economy and consumer culture they are deemed to be—and the author could hardly be accused of being wrong—entirely unprepared for survival with all the aids and padding they currently enjoy. Indeed, as humans, they have forgotten how to prepare and how to survive. Hence, unsurprisingly, the novel is popular with preppers and survivalists.
Philosophically, the novel articulates is an x-ray of the American conservative mind, which nowadays is, of course, liberal with classical leanings. (That is, that modern conservatives seek to conserve is a vestige of classical liberalism.) This results in occasional corniness and, inevitably, concessions to political correctness. Yet, Forstchen makes an important point, even though his purpose is to awaken Americans as to the degree to which precious liberalism is threatened by complacency, for we are shown that the liberal values with which the United States was framed and upon which American built its conception of itself, would quickly crumble without an infrastructure to sustain them. In the novel, concepts such as fairness, equality, and freedom go out the window, even as the main characters lament it, resist it, and deny it, to each other and to themselves. Many of the decisions they are forced into making are fundamentally unfair, but clearly of absolute necessity; they also distribute resources unequally, the latter going to those thought most likely to bring the greatest chances of survival; and they impose numerous—sometimes fatal—restrictions on the population, which are brutally enforced. The author even highlights how preposterous it is for some to think that being an American is something ontologically special or unique, which makes it impossible for cannibalism or inequity to occur even while society has fallen apart completely. The EMP scenario serves to highlight how the U.S.-led ahistorical pretensions of liberal superiority and uniqueness rest on fragile, man-made structures, physical and cognitive, that can endure only under controlled and artificial conditions. They begin dissolve one second after the props have been knocked down.
The novel is well written and a fast and easy read. The prose is so basic as to be invisible, which keeps the reader focused on the story, though there is a mild slump in the middle due to an over-reliance on dialogue. Also, the minimally developed, largely stereotypical characters arouse nearly zero emotion from the reader, and it becomes annoying when, during the dialogue sections, the reader is told, too often with exactly the same phrase, that no ‘one spoke’ or so-and-so ‘shook his head’. However, the real driver of the story, and what the reader wants to find out, is how the post-EMP scenario unfolds.