One Second After by William R. Forstchen, a book review
One Second After by William Forstchen is the single most terrifying, realistic, dystopian novel I have read in my life. After the Bible, this is the One Book You Must Read This Year. Soon. Now. This book is very carefully researched and is extremely accurate, detailed, and emotionally charged. If you have a weak stomach, be prepared to puke as you read it. But you Must read it. If you cry easily as you read a real tear- jerker then get a box of Kleenex. In fact, by a case of Kleenex, they will come in handy later. You’ll see. I read Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach as a kid, along with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and various other novels with a dystopian bent. See my review of Anthem by Ayn Rand here:
As horrifying as those novels were, One Second After hits so close to home and is so realistic that it literally kept me awake last night, all night, even though I laid the book aside at 2100. This book is making me change some priorities.
The story takes place in the typical small college town of Black Mountain, North Carolina.
A former Infantry Colonel in the Army, Dr. John Matherson, is a history professor at Montreat College and is thrust into city leadership when an EMP bomb goes off over the country wiping out all electric power and electronic devices. America is instantly plunged into the darkness of the 19th century unprepared. Forstchen walks you through the difficulties this small town faces in the first days, weeks, months, and the first year. It is not a pretty scene; it will disturb you like nothing else you have read. There is no happy ending here.
The author sets up the crisis beautifully by giving a splendid background to the town and the professor’s family. It’s his youngest daughter’s birthday, Jennifer, and when he is talking on the phone with his daughter’s godfather, a general from the Pentagon, he hears shouting and panic in the background and the general has to leave hurriedly, the cell phone goes dead, along with everything electric in the house. Their first thought is another power outage, but it affects his daughter’s diabetes blood monitor too and just one of the tragedies of this book of tragedies is set up.
Still thinking it is just a power outage Professor Matherson cooks the hamburgers on the grill in preparation for Jennifer’s party when she makes one of the scariest observations: “Hey Dad, something strange…Listen.” He stood there silent for a minute…”I don’t hear anything.” “That’s it, Dad, There’s no traffic noise from the Interstate.” He turned and faced towards the road…but she was right; there was absolute silence.
The next terrible tremor came when the professor looks up at the evening sky and realizes he sees no jet contrails, not one, and they are on the route to Atlanta so there are always 2-3 jets in the sky, always. Next, he sees the smoke from distant fires in the mountains that were not right. “The chill…it reminded him of 9/11.”
When Jennifer’s grandmother, Jen, drives up in her classic Ford Edsel she announces, “Damndest thing. Power’s out up at the nursing home. And you should see the interstate, cars just sittin all over the place, not moving.” This sets up more tragedies.
The professor and his mother in law decide to drive into town to pick up Matherson’s 16 year old daughter who should have been home by now. As soon as they get to the Interstate, however, the Professor realizes the problem is bigger as he sees all the cars stalled. Notably, he takes this trip without a gun. That will change. On this brief trip to the highway, he sees his daughter walking home with her boyfriend, but then, a beautiful woman in business attire comes to the fence and tries to get him to take her into town since his car is working and her BMW is not (yet another theme- shiny new cars become worthless, old junkers and classics priceless). He turns her down, along with many others asking for help. (Yet another couple of themes introduced that are carried throughout the whole novel.) Yes there is a love story that is developed in the book, two actually, and there is joy and tragedy accompanying them both.
In chapter 3 there is an encounter between John and the convenience store owner and John tells Hamid to stash his remaining cigarettes as an investment. This encounter comes up again and again in the book, but ultimately, in the next to the last chapter we read this, John sees a teenager with a stand set up downtown selling two plump squirrels and a rabbit. the going price was 7 bullets for a squirrel and 20 bullets for the rabbit. “John’s earlier prediction that cigarettes might very well become currency had been wrong. Nearly every last one had been smoked long ago….It was bullets that were now the currency of choice, espcially .22 and shotgun shells.” (p.317). It is interesting that as I write this, the ammunition shelves at all sporting goods stores are bare. Ever since the election of Barack Obama, there has been a run on guns and ammo. That brief episode points forward to the extreme scarcity that will soon exist, the return to a barter economy, and the value of bullets and wild game. Even our addictions, like cigarettes, will pass away as people try to just survive.
It is on Day 2 that John goes in to the town and meets with the police chief, Tom, and Charlie Fuller the Director of Public Safety and the Mayor Kate Lindsey. In that meeting John brings up EMP and gives them a copy of an old paper he had presented with one section on EMP. “EMP. Electromagnetic Pulse. Its the byproduct of a nuclear detonation.” “We’ve been nuked?” Kate asked, obviously startled. “I think so.” (p.63).
On p.71 they start to talk about priorities, security is mentioned, and water. They realize that without refrigeration food will be a problem. But they act too late in many regards, and it has not even been 24 hrs.
Another theme emerges in this meeting with an attempt by the Chief to take over John’s Edsel since it is running and none of the police cars are. John very coldly tells him “That car is mine, my family’s. You declaring martial law?” “I think we’ll have t, ” Kate said quietly. “When you do, come and try and take it, Tom.” “What do you mean try?” “Just that, Just try.” The theme is Martial Law, freedom for the individual vs.the needs of the State in an emergency. This conflict will continue throughout the book.
The Professor leaves the meeting and goes to the college where we are introduced to Washington Parker, a Marine veteran who runs campus security. He is already thinking and organizing the college kids into a security force. He is one of the heroes of the story.
The next scene suddenly shows how serious things are getting and again, sets the tone for the rest of the book. The place is the drugstore where John is going to try to pick up some insulin for his little girl, Jennifer. The drug store is now a mob scene and John has to get violent with a violent man. this sets up three strands of the story: John is a man of action and violence when needed, John is trying to save his little girl’s life, and he gets injured thus setting the stage for his relationship with the woman from the BMW whom he refused to give a ride to the previous night. Makala Turner is a nurse and is one of the heroines of the story. The themes are: looting mobs, violence, medicine and love.
The author takes us through the various survival strategies as the crisis deepens until the climax of the story with a large battle between the town’s militia and a roving Posse of druggies and gangsters who are also resorting to cannibalism. Cannibalism is another theme in Forstchen’s other books (see The Lost Regiment series- one of my all time favorite sci fi series.)
I will not go through all the episodes, but I do want to address several of the topics that come up.
FIRST, there is the stubborn disbelief of the evidence by Dr. Matherson and everyone else. Nobody initially wants to say what the problem is and everyone thinks it will clear up by the next day. This, too, is a theme that is carried through to the end of the book in the last chapter when Col. Matherson has a discussion with the general leading the first relief column to reach Black Mountain, a year later. When disaster strikes, especially a sudden, yet gradual disaster as an EMP blast, where the true ramifications are felt out gradually over a year’s time, people go into denial. FAILURE TO ACT IN THE FIRST 24 HOURS IN A FEW KEY WAYS CAUSED MORE OF A DISASTER. P.37 “There was a thought, but it was too disturbing to contemplate right now. He wanted to believe that it was just a weird combination of coincidences, a power failure that might be regional, and would ground most flights due to air traffic control. Maybe it was some sort of severe solar storm, potent enough to trigger a massive short circuit; a similar event happened up in Canada several years ago.” Lesson #1 ACCEPT REALITY AND ACT IMMEDIATELY ON THE NEW TRUTH. Hesitation by Professor Matheson and others in leadership caused some serious problems.
LESSON #2: ESTABLISH SECURITY OVER THE KEY LOCATIONS AND ASSETS IMMEDIATELY, IN THE FIRST 24 HOURS AT LEAST, FIRST 8 HRS PREFERABLY. Failure to secure the drug stores and grocery stores immediately led to a chaotic looting spree. City government must recognize the severity of the crisis and act accordingly. BUT, police forces are nowhere near big enough to do this job. THIS IS WHERE A MILITIA MUST BE USED. THERE IS NO TIME TO GET THE NATIONAL GUARD MOBILIZED AT THE STATE LEVEL.
LESSON#3: THIS KIND OF A CATASTROPHE CALLS FOR MARTIAL LAW. SECURITY IS THE FIRST PRIORITY.
LESSON #4: SECURE WATER, FOOD, FUEL, MEDICAL SUPPLIES.
LESSON #5: THE NURSING HOMES, HOSPITALS, MEDICINE DEPENDENT PEOPLE, ELDERLY, ILL AND VERY YOUNG WILL DIE OFF RAPIDLY IN THE FIRST WEEK. YOU MUST TRIAGE THE PEOPLE, KNOW WHO IS GOING TO HELP THE COMMUNITY AND BE SURE THEY SURVIVE. THE OTHERS WILL JUST DIE. Late in the book the city leaders realize they will run out of food and all will starve so they give less food to the non-essential people while the essential people, the young college students who have formed the militia for example, get more food because they are doing the hardest work. Harsh, but realistic.
Again, the nursing home scene will make you puke and/or cry. It is graphic, unpleasant, but you have to read it.
LESSON #6: Guns and ammunition will be essential for hunting and for defending against thieves and for defending the city against the roving gangs and “armies” that will form.
LESSON 7: Cleanliness and sanitation will be essential to prevent epidemics. Though the book did not go into this much, but it did a little, the loss of working sewers for a lot of people causes a big problem. Imagine the large Apartment Complexes in your city with 3, 4 or more stories. Water shuts down, sewer shuts down. Where will people go to relieve themselves? What happens when toilet paper runs out in a couple of days? Large Apartment complexes will become stinking hell-holes in 3 days.
LESSON 8: In the novel, because it was a college town, there were some students and professors who knew enough about local plants to begin foraging for food. They harvested dandelions and mushrooms. In an urban environment, can you do that? The woods of North Carolina were all around so hunting squirrels, rabbits, deer, game birds and even bears and wild hogs was readily available…until all the animals were killed off. In the big city there are squirrels, rabbits, pigeons and dove, but not much else.
LESSON 9: The book stresses neighbor helping neighbor, small towns defending themselves against the masses of people traveling on the highways exiting the big cities. Time and again it was stated that people in cities flocked to the countryside thinking that more food was available, when the reality was…they were starving too. In other words, the local geographic unit must bind together quickly, and be prepared to defend itself, fend for itself, and feed itself. Some natural alliances are possible with communities right next together as in the book.
LESSON 10: Leaving home, leaving the big city, seems like a good idea at first, but proves to be a very BAD idea. If you live in a city and have nowhere close to go like a lake house, grandpa’s house, stay put.
LESSON 11: The small towns let in some of the traveling folks who had good job skills needed, nurse Makala for example. Lawyers, accountants and bankers, etc. were useless and not accepted. They died on the road.
LESSON 12: Maintaining our cultural values and form of government in an extremely bad situation. Yes they declare martial law quickly and do have a community feeding program, militia, hospital, etc. But they do keep some private property and freedom. They allow those with a reserve of food to keep it, they just cannot eat at the public feeding until they run out of food at home (and a search will be made). John is allowed to keep his car and a pilot who has an older airplane keeps his plane but runs missions for the town. When it is time to try criminals they are given a brief trial, then executed. Col. Matherson becomes the executioner since he is at first not a part of the city government or Police Force. He gives a couple of good speeches along the way to the townspeople to keep them from descending into barbarism.
LESSON 13: Religion is kept in an important role by the author. Good pastors and Christians are praised, prayer and religious services are observed.
LESSON 14: Our society has a lot of people with mental illnesses who are on medications for same. What happens when their meds run out?
OVERALL LESSON: OUR SOCIETY IS A VERY COMPLEX TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY THAT IS EXTREMELY FRAGILE. IF A DISASTER HAPPENS, YOU HAVE TO SURVIVE WITH WHAT YOU HAVE ALREADY IN YOUR POSSESSION AND YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS, HEALTH AND DETERMINATION TO SURVIVE. IN THIS BOOK, 80% DIE OFF IN THE FIRST YEAR.
As a committed Christian I found this book to be faith friendly. Yes, there were some curse words and the Lord’s name was used in vain a few times. The violence is quite brutal and graphic, but not gratuitous; it is an essential part of what the book is trying to teach. Positive values are stressed and sins, such as selfishness are portrayed realistically and with consequences. No one is ideal here, all are shown to be sinners, but many are portrayed as noble, sacrificing their lives in combat and through starvation so that others might live. Justice is portrayed, as is mercy. The Bible portrays warfare very realistically in various places but none so graphically as in 2 Kings 6-7 where a siege is underway in Samaria and the people are starving. It is prudent for Christians, even in the comfort and luxury of our modern day, to prepare for what Forstchen says might happen.
This book serves as a serious wake up call to America and it should be read by every American. Our politicians need to be shaken awake. Action needs to be taken today. But don’t count on it. Another lesson from the book, Help doesn’t come from the Federal Government until the last chapter. Prepare yourself and your family.
Here are some links:
First is Forstchen’s homepage-
An article on EMP:
And here is a scary news story about how our enemies, Iran for one, are already working on this weapon:
Here is a review of the book by Mark Steyn:
Here is an update that reveals that our military has neglected the hardening of their computers and comm gear in recent decades, not taking a limited nuclear war seriously: