Books by Forstchen, William R.

Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2.
Suppose, one fine spring day, with no warning or evident cause, the power went out. After a while, when it didn't come back on, you might try to telephone the power company, only to discover the phone completely dead. You pull out your mobile phone, and it too is kaput—nothing happens at all when you try to turn it on. You get the battery powered radio you keep in the basement in case of storms, and it too is dead; you swap in the batteries from the flashlight (which works) but that doesn't fix the radio. So, you decide to drive into town and see if anybody there knows what's going on. The car doesn't start. You set out on foot, only to discover when you get to the point along the lane where you can see the highway that it's full of immobile vehicles with their drivers wandering around on foot as in a daze.

What's happening—The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is there a saucer on the ground in Washington? Nobody knows: all forms of communication are down, all modes of transportation halted. You might think this yet another implausible scenario for a thriller, but what I've just described (in a form somewhat different than the novel) is pretty much what the sober-sided experts of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack sketch out in their April 2008 Critical National Infrastructures report and 2004 Executive Report as the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in space high above the continental United States. There would be no thermal, blast, or radiation effects on the ground (although somebody unlucky enough to be looking toward the location of the detonation the sky might suffer vision damage, particularly if it occurred at night), but a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created as prompt gamma rays from the nuclear detonation create free electrons in the upper atmosphere due to the Compton effect which spiral along the lines of force of Earth's magnetic field and emit an intense electric field pulse in three phases which reaches the ground and affects electrical and electronic equipment in a variety of ways, none good. As far as is known, the electromagnetic pulse is completely harmless to humans and other living organisms and would not even be perceived by them.

But it's Hell on electronics. The immediate (E1) pulse arrives at the speed of light everywhere within the line of sight of the detonation, and with a rise time of at most a few nanoseconds, gets into all kinds of electronics much faster than any form of transient protection can engage; this is what kills computer and communications gear and any other kind of electronics with exposed leads or antennas which the pulse can excite. The second phase (E2) pulse is much like the effects of a local lightning strike, and would not cause damage to equipment with proper lightning protection except that in many cases the protection mechanisms may have been damaged or disabled by the consequences of the E1 pulse (which has no counterpart in lightning, and hence lightning mitigation gear is not tested to withstand it). Finally, the E3 pulse arrives, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, which behaves much like the fields created during a major solar/geomagnetic storm (although the EMP effect may be larger), inducing large currents in long distance electrical transmission lines and other extended conductive structures. The consequences of this kind of disruption are well documented from a number of incidents such as the 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro power distribution grid. But unlike a geomagnetic storm, the EMP E3 pulse can affect a much larger area, hit regions in latitudes rarely vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, and will have to be recovered from in an environment where electronics and communications are down due to the damage from the E1 and E2 pulses.

If you attribute much of the technological and economic progress of the last century and a half to the connection of the developed world by electrical, transportation, communication, and computational networks which intimately link all parts of the economy and interact with one another in complex and often non-obvious ways, you can think about the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon launched by a relatively crude missile (which need not be long range if fired, say, from a freighter outside the territorial waters of the target country) by imagining living in the 21st century, seeing the lights flicker and go out and hearing the air conditioner stop, and two minutes later you're living in 1860. None of this is fantasy—all of the EMP effects were documented in nuclear tests in the 1960s and hardening military gear against EMP has been an active area of research and development for decades: this book, which sits on my own shelf, was published 25 years ago. Little or no effort has been expended on hardening the civil infrastructure or commercial electronics against this threat.

This novel looks at what life might be like in the year following an EMP attack on the United States, seen through the microcosm of a medium sized college town in North Carolina where the protagonist is a history professor. Unlike many thrillers, the author superbly describes the sense of groping in the dark when communication is cut and rumours begin to fly, the realisation that with the transportation infrastructure down the ready food supply is measured in days (especially after the losses due to failure of refrigeration), and the consequences to those whose health depends upon medications produced at great distance and delivered on a just in time basis. It is far from a pretty picture, but given the premises of the story (about which I shall natter a bit below), entirely plausible in my opinion. This story has the heroes and stolid get-things-done people who come to the fore in times of crisis, but it also shows how thin the veneer of civilisation is when the food starts to run out and the usual social constraints and sanctions begin to fail. There's no triumphant ending: what is described is a disaster and the ensuing tragedy, with survival for some the best which can be made of the situation. The message is that this, or something like it although perhaps not so extreme, could happen, and that the time to take the relatively modest and inexpensive (at least compared to recent foreign military campaigns) steps to render an EMP attack less probable and, should one occur, to mitigate its impact on critical life-sustaining infrastructure and prepare for recovery from what damage does occur, is now, not the second after the power goes out—all across the continent.

This is a compelling page-turner, which I devoured in just a few days. I do believe the author overstates the total impact of an EMP attack. The scenario here is that essentially everything which incorporates solid state electronics or is plugged into the power grid is fried at the instant of the attack, and that only vacuum tube gear, vehicles without electronic ignition or fuel injection, and other museum pieces remain functional. All airliners en route fall from the sky when their electronics are hit by the pulse. But the EMP Commission report is relatively sanguine about equipment not connected to the power grid which doesn't have vulnerable antennas. They discuss aircraft at some length, and conclude that since all commercial and military aircraft are currently tested and certified to withstand direct lightning strikes, and all but the latest fly-by-wire planes use mechanical and hydraulic control linkages, they are unlikely to be affected by EMP. They may lose communication, and the collapse of the air traffic control system will pose major problems and doubtless lead to some tragedies, but all planes aloft raining from the sky doesn't seem to be in the cards. Automobiles and trucks were tested by the commission (see pp. 115–116 of the Critical Infrastructures report), and no damage whatsoever occurred to vehicles not running when subjected to a simulated pulse; some which were running stopped, but all but a few immediately restarted and none required more than routine garage repairs. Having the highways open and trucks on the road makes a huge difference in a disaster recovery scenario. But let me qualify these quibbles by noting that nobody knows what will actually happen: with non-nuclear EMP and other electromagnetic weapons a focus of current research, doubtless much of the information on vulnerability of various systems remains under the seal of secrecy. And besides, in a cataclysmic situation, it's usually the things you didn't think of which cause the most dire problems.

One language note: the author seems to believe that the word “of” is equivalent to “have” when used in a phrase such as “You should've” or “I'd have”—instead, he writes “You should of” and “I'd of”. At first I thought this was a dialect affectation of a single character, but it's used all over the place, by characters of all kinds of regional and cultural backgrounds. Now, this usage is grudgingly sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by the descriptive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p. 679, item 2), but it just drives me nuts; if you consider the definitions of the individual words, what can “should of” possibly mean?

This novel focuses on the human story of people caught entirely by surprise trying to survive in a situation beyond their imagining one second before. If reading this book makes you ponder what steps you might take beforehand to protect your family in such a circumstance, James Wesley Rawles's Patriots (December 2008), which is being issued in a new, expanded edition in April 2009, is an excellent resource, as is Rawles's SurvivalBlog.

A podcast interview with William R. Forstchen about One Second After is available.

March 2009 Permalink