ONE SECOND AFTER by William R. Forstchen

ONE SECOND AFTER by William R. Forstchen. Published TOR March 2009
reviewed by Lyn McConchie.

Maybe because I’m aware that if civilization collapses I’ll be dead with it shortly thereafter even if I survive the initial event, (I have pernicious anaemia) I have a liking for most post-holocaust books. However I’m fussy about those I keep. I have a shelf of them, ranging from such classics as Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Furies, to the more modern destruction of Cold Sea Rising, and the John Marsden series of Tomorrow When the War began. I keep an eye open for new additions to the shelf, and, having been disappointed this year with The Mission and Outpost both good read-once books but not keepers. – I pounced by William Forstchen’s book, One Second After.
I ignored the various accolades and introduction by a prominent Name and went for the throat, starting the book mid-morning, and remaining glued to it for the entire day, despite some interruptions, until, some four hours worth of reading later when I closed it with a sigh of satisfaction. For those who know this sub-genre, it can be likened to Pat Frank’s work, Alas Babylon. It has a similar family plus dogs, a village atmosphere (in the North Carolina hills) where being a neighbor is important, and where the inhabitant knows almost everyone, and Forstchen has been quite graphic in places about what the destruction of a key component in a civilization would bring to those who survive.
The village is Black Mountain, set in a beautiful scenic area of mountains close to Ashville, (The author lives in this area too) The village is mostly peaceful, the people are mostly generous and honest, and it’s a good place to live, raise children, attend the small Christian college, or retire. Until three nuclear devices are detonated high above the United States and produce not fallout but an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) which in a second fries almost every electrical item in the country, including power stations, car computers, phones, and medical equipment.
And the fact is, that this scenario is one of the most likely to end up as a reality if some lunatic dictator with nuclear capacity decides to take his enemies with him. As in Forstchen’s book, it can be done in such a way that no one but the perpetrator knows who was responsible, and the area affected can be targeted with reasonable precision not affected by wind direction, or other natural phenomena. It would be excellent as the advance for a planned invasion since the victims would be too busy with survival, rescue, and coping with those who had relied on electrical equipment to live, and who would have lost in the single second, many military capabilities to fight back effectively.
It has puzzled me ever since I heard about EMP many years ago, why more has not been done to guard against such a scenario but it seems to have gone, for most countries, into the ‘too-hard basket’ and left ignored for the most part. Some modern military equipment has been ‘hardened’ against EMP, but little if anything of civilian items and if such a strike was made today, the events in One Second After would be all too probable and not merely in America, but in all the city areas of any first world country where it occurred.
This book is brutally realistic, something many of the older ones in this sub-genre were not, or were not able, to be. (Publishers don’t always like over-brutal realities graphically written.) The EMP strikes Black Mountain as John Matherson prepares for his younger daughter Jennifer’s twelfth birthday party. John’s wife Mary died of breast cancer four years earlier, and he lives with Jennifer and her elder sister, Lucy, and their two much loved dogs, Ginger and Zach in a pleasant home some distance out of town. In that second his discussion with a friend on the phone is cut off, his daughter’s CD player dies, the ceiling fan whirrs to a halt, the home security/fire alarm chirps that it is off-line, and the computer in the room shuts down.
Even Matherson, once an army officer, doesn’t realize what has happened, assuming that it is some sort of ordinary power outage. It takes him some time to become worried, more time to decide that he should investigate, and only gradually does it dawn on him that his life has gone from comfortable, predictable and safe, to uncomfortable, difficult and possibly lethally dangerous, for his children, loved parents-in-law, and for everyone that he knows.
This book is a progression as the country – in the form of Black Mountain as its microcosm – comes to see what has happened, and to deal with it, each in their own way, or within the groups they join or are swept into. Beginning with John Matherson’s discovery of all traffic broken down on the local throughway and some of the drivers already becoming dangerously belligerent since Jen (his mother-in-law’s) car, an ancient Edsal, is the only vehicle running so far as they can see.
Events move into the initial die-off when those dependent for life on electrically operated medical equipment die without it. Then those who rely on medication to survive and without the transport that regularly stocks their pharmacy, there are now no resupplies of heart pills, High Blood Pressure tablets, insulin, and pain medication. There is a wave of suicides at both times as well, as those who are ill or damaged understand what will happen to them. Famine is starting, disease breaks out, and attacks begin from communities that see Black Mountain as having more than others do.
In that one second, American civilization has been flung back, not just to the 1800s, as Matherson explains, but to a far earlier time. Because in the 1800 they had an infrastructure solidly in place. Now they don’t, they have to build it from the beginning again, and they can’t support much of the population they have while doing this. At the end of the book, only 20% of Black Mountain’s population have survived, and, while the book appears to then sound a cautious note of hope, John Matherson is unconvinced and, as a realist, so am I.
The characters of One Second After engaged me completely, and the background is that of any rural town. Throughout the story John Matherson has to make hard choices, as do the mayor, police chief, medics and those responsible for the running of Black Mountain’s college. Some find themselves unable to do so, while others break under the strain but I never felt that any of that was unlikely or contrived. The book has gone straight to my ‘keeper’ shelf of ‘post-holocaust’ books, and I look forward to reading it again in another 3-4 years – so long as an EMP doesn’t get here first.
This work is a chilling forecast of something that is far more likely to occur than many other doomsday scenarios, and it should be required reading for government and military personnel in countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, and my own New Zealand, where such an EMP would have the effects described. (It is true that here with our very low population density, fertile lands, and high agricultural production, we’d do better with maybe 30% surviving long term, but I doubt that the other 70% would see this as much of an improvement.) I strongly recommend this book to those who enjoy the sub-genre, but also to survivalists, governments, the military, and all realists everywhere.

1 comment

    • AmandaK on 29 December 2011 at 12:39

    The author of “One Second After”; William Forstchen is going to be on a radio blog show called EMPactRadio? It should be great to listen to, seeing as he wrote such a great book. He’s going to be on their show January 4th, 2012 at noon (Eastern Time.) Here’s the link to listen and to read more about the episode:

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