Wednesday, June 3, 2009

One Second After by William Forstchen

In case you needed something else to worry about, here is a terrific, fact based, adventure novel, which I predict will become a movie. Set in the small town of Black Mountain, NC; the story is about an Electro Magnetec Pulse attack on the United States, and the ensuing aftermath, which starts one second after the attack. The primary character is John Matherson, a retired Army widower, and devoted father. The story is told, more or less, from Matherson's perspective, although it's not told in the first person. Matherson is presented as a good, albeit imperfect man, thrust into a leadership role that he neither anticipated nor wanted. In this role, he becomes sort of an everyman facing the new realities that started with the EMP attack.

Almost all of the story is local. Forstchen presents a thought provoking incident in which the town leaders learn that the president of the United States has likely been killed. Embroiled in their own struggles to survive, the townsmen give it little thought. Their world has been reduced to the town and its surroundings. What is happening in a now very far away and disconnected Washington DC has little or no impact on their lives.

The forward is written by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and the afterward is written by US Navy Captain Bill Sanders. Although this is a novel, both Gingrich and Sanders attest to its feasibility, and to the vulnerability of the US infrastructure to just such an attack. The Compton Effect is explained; which briefly, is how a high altitude nuclear explosion can generate a pulse of sufficient amplitude and duration to significantly damage electrical and electronic circuitry. One of the more frightening revelations, is that it takes neither a particularly sophisticated targeting system, nor an especially sophisticated nuclear device to perform an attack of this nature. For all the techie types the forward and afterward alone are worth the read. For everyone, One Second After is an exciting novel.

Life in the small idyllic town of Black Mountain is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting; small town Americana all the way. And then the attack comes out of the blue. At first, it appears very benign. The power goes out, and cars stop running. Then people gradually become aware that virtually nothing electronic or electrical is working.

Forstchen does a wonderful job of painting a picture of how truly fragile our connected culture and society really is. The people of Black Mountain, along with the rest of the country, are suddenly thrust into a 19th century culture for which they are ill-equipped to live. Rampant disease, starvation, and anarchy are suddenly not just something that third world countries deal with, it's the way of life in the United States. Ethical questions, such as whether to share scarce food and medicine with the thousands trapped on nearby Interstate 40, are dealt with by people that never imagined dealing with such questions. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, no help is coming to Black Mountain, because the entire United States is in the same shape or worse. The people of the town must face the reality that this is now the culture for years, not weeks.

It's an exciting and sobering story. A few nights ago, we had a power outage, and I found myself almost automatically checking my cell phone to be sure it was still working. Anyone reading this novel, and taking the time (and I recommend this) to read both the forward and afterward will find themselves questioning their own dependence on the fragile fabric of American society.

As I said at the start.. just in case you needed something else to worry about!

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