In his 2009 novel One Second After, William R. Forstchen provides a chilling fictional narrative describing the effects of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon on both a small North Carolina mountain town and the broader impacts on American society as a whole. In the story, a high altitude nuclear detonation occurs over the Midwest and in an instant all electrical grids and electronics nationwide are rendered unusable, thereby effectively returning society to the 19th Century. As Newt Gingrich points out in the book’s foreword, Forstchen delivers a “terrifying “future history” that might come true.” I believe that One Second After significantly areas of concern in the Homeland Security arena which has served as a major wakeup call to both lawmakers and emergency management officials alike. The following critical book analysis of Forstchen’s novel will discuss its strength and weaknesses, the clear consistency of his characters and storyline and the most insightful aspects of the story.
Perhaps the greatest strength of One Second After is that Forstchen brings the discussion of an Electromagnetic Pulse attack on the national power grid into the mainline discussion. The EMP threat is not new. The 1962 Starfish Prime high altitude nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean reportedly disrupted electrical systems in Hawaii some 900 miles away to include 300 street lights shutting off. The 2001 National Defense Authorization Act established the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. The commission released its initial report in 2004. Unfortunately, as Bill Sanders points out in afterward of One Second After, the report’s findings were overshadowed by the release of the 9/11 Commission Report the same day. Since the publishing of Forstchen’s novel and the mainstream publicity it has brought, the EMP commission has reported multiple times to congress with the most recent being a 2017 report that detailed the increased North Korean threat. These reports are examples that demonstrate the increased national discussion of the EMP threat on our increasingly digitally dependent society.
In my opinion, the greatest weakness in Forstchen’s novel is the near totality of the effects of the enemy attack. According to figures in the EMP Commission’s 2004 report, even with a high altitude detonation over the continental United States, it would take a coordinated attack of multiple weapons for an EMP to fully cripple the national power grid and all electronics. At the end of the novel, the reader learns that just a single weapon fired from a cargo ship container detonated over the Midwest and terminated all of the power and electronics on the continent. While it is highly likely there would be mass casualties in the areas suffering the effects of the EMP, I believe that a quicker response via the National Response Framework from the non-affected regions would occur versus what Forstchen’s story describes. As it was, Forstchen’s characters didn’t see any organized response until one year after the attacks when a United States Army convoy rolled though the town where the story was set, Black Mountain, North Carolina.
As the novel unfolds, Forstchen presented a clear, concise flowing story that keeps the reader engaged throughout by way of its setting, character development and the importance of geography. One of the main reasons he is able to develop such a captivating narrative was his choice of setting. For this, Forstchen uses his hometown of Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he is a professor of history at Montreat College. By choosing this small mountain community to tell his story, Forstchen demonstrated an obvious passion for the characters of his story. This gives the reader a true sense of being there as the reality of life without electricity unfolds. Next, Forstchen logically develops his characters throughout the story. The main character, John Matherson, a retired army colonel that Forstchen seems to have modeled after himself, is also a Montreat Professor. John has a diabetic daughter who is insulin dependent and only has a four-month supply of the drug. With John’s daughter’s looming fate at the top of his thoughts and efforts, the reader is constantly reminded of the new realities that the EMP has wrought on the entire nation. Despite John’s efforts, his daughter died 131 days after the EMP hit. Finally, the geography of Black Mountain was crucial to the town’s survival. A large fresh water reservoir above the town provides clean, running water to the town and proves to be one of the greatest assets to the town for both survival and power politics. The natural defenses of the terrain and the chokepoints leading into the valley aid in the defense of the town. In the story’s culmination, the city militia used the natural terrain to defeat a group of marauders caught in the choke point along the former Interstate highway.
One of the most insightful aspect that Forstchen shows in One Second After is the effect of the power failure on food distribution and availability. In the story, once the food distribution systems stopped, there instant shortage of food and water due to just-in-time distribution methods and dependence on running water in most areas. The EMP attack in the novel came in the early spring prior to crops being harvested or even planted. This led to food running out before more could be grown and widespread starvation, particularly in the cities. This aspect is certainly not based on fiction. According to the EMP Commission’s 2004 report to congress, “the distribution system is a chokepoint in the US food infrastructure. Supermarkets typically carry only enough food to provision the local population for 1 to 3 days.” While supermarkets keep about a month’s supply in regional warehouses, this food cannot be distributed without a functioning distribution and transportation system. Forstchen does not hesitate to bring the uncomfortable realities of the food shortage into his story.
While it would not make for as good of an apocalyptic story, I believe there is more room in Forstchen’s novel for response via the National Response Framework. Full activation of the National Guard in non-affected regions along with the bulk of federal airlift available to be recalled from around the world could certainly have aided in the food shortage. Also, continuity of the federal government would allow for the command and control to continue beyond what is shown in Forstchen’s book. I believe that it would have been more realistic for the story to have seen aid drops and ground troops within the first few months as opposed to the year that it took in the book. Also, Forstchen does not give enough emphasis on foreign aid. He briefly describes how China brought in half a million foreign aid troops which essentially stayed as an occupying force. With most North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations not affected, there is room in the story for European aid and NATO Article 5 support, particularly by the British who will have a vested interest in American national recovery.
In conclusion, I believe that while a work of fiction, Forstchen credibly depicts the real-life vulnerabilities of the electrical grid and the lack of American ability to handle a national outage. This is evident through the congressional attention that has come since the novel’s release. The actions the federal government have begun to take in order to marginalize the North Korean nuclear program are also a positive development to stop the EMP threat in its tracks. That being said, emergency managers must still study our fragile complex and interconnected electrical infrastructure in order to both secure and protect its critical nodes. For example, a 2017 report by the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction in London discussed a comprehensive plan for emergency managers and governments alike to recognize and mitigate the cascading effects of wide-area power failures. Our society is fragile and One Second After should be viewed not as a survivalist scare tactic, but as a wakeup call.