Friday, July 20, 2012

"One Second After": grim novel by William Forstchen depicts life after EMP attack

Author: William R. Forstchen (Foreword by Newt Gingrich, Afterword by Capt Bill Sanders, USN)

Title: “One Second After” (a novel)

Publication: 2009, Tom Doherty Associates, ISBN 978-0-7653-2725-3, 350 pages, paper, Twelve chapters, with afterword

This book is a novel presenting the experience of a community in the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina after a sudden electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP) on the entire country and on other parts of the developed world.

The story is told largely through the view of John Matheson, who has a diabetic daughter Jennifer.  He has a brother in the Pentagon who regards Jennifer as a goddaughter.  One spring day he calls suddenly and wants to check on how she is. Just after John gets back on the phone, the phone goes dead, all the power goes out.  In a few agonizing hours that follow the family finds out that all the car traffic died.  Within a day the community has figured out that an EMP attack has occurred.  Curiously, John’s old Edsel without modern ignition still runs.

The chapters of the novel first track each day following “The Event”, and then skip to two months, four months, and then one year.

The novel quickly explains how modern solid state electronics are totally fried by the EMP, whereas older vacuum tube stuff of a few decades ago might sometimes work.  It also explains that civilian infrastructure has not been hardened, and even military gear is not as well protected as it had been during the Reagan years.

Martial law gets set up – and the randomness of the way society falls apart, leading to looting and vigilantism, as well as attempts at rationing in a world that no longer has money, becomes very striking.  It’s hard to say whether the martial law, vigilantism and militia activity follow a right wing or left wing model – they amount to the same thing. The disease and fatality volume come to resemble that of a holocaust.  Starvation occurs, and one wonders why people couldn’t grow more of their own food in the mild North Carolina climate. Some electric and conventional operator-assisted phone service starts getting rewired inland from military coastal ships, but it will be too little, too late.

The author proposes that the “enemy” launched three missiles.  The largest was from a containership (with Liberian registry) off the Gulf Coast, splitting into three missiles with three warheads exploding over different parts of the country, to cover the entire nation.  Others were from north of Russia, and around southeast Asia.  The author is not very specific as to the identity of the enemy or its political motives, other to bring the entire developed world “low”.  And the terrorists, in the end, “win” with such asymmetric attacks.
The Afterword, “Electromagnetic Pulse: A Bolt from the Gray”, mentions the "Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack”, which has two parts, published in 2004 and 2008. The link is here.

EMP has long been known and would have occurred with thermonuclear war.  But during the Cold War with Communism -- the Soviet Union (and to an extent China)—the major preoccupation was blast and radioactivity, and as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis proved, mutually assured destruction was an effective prevention strategy.  Today, the enemies are small states or non-state actors who feel they have nothing to lose and want to bring others low – a psychopathy sometimes found associated with extremist religion, tribalism, and warlord-like states.  MAD cannot work.  It is true, however, that “Star Wars” and missile defense capabilities (as with NORAD and much of it well established even by the late 1960s) might be expected to intercept the fictitious missiles in this novel.

There is debate on what can be done to harden infrastructures, but most of it remains obscure with politicians, power companies, and the public.

In practice, real threats might come from smaller weapons.  US and NATO forces do have non-nuclear microwave-based EMP weapons that are effective in small areas in ground combat, as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Presumably these are heavily secured from misuse.  Right before 9/11, in early September 2001, Popular Science published an article which claimed that such weapons could be constructed for a few hundred dollars.  That article is no longer available, it seems; it was strangely forgotten right after 9/11. 

What really can be done defensively?  There is talk of Faraday cages.  Should people have these at home?  Should people have some backup computers that don’t depend on vulnerable solid state?  Could automobiles and personal electronics somehow be otherwise hardened?  Supposedly, there are technologies that power companies could use to better ground their transformers and generating stations.

There is also a substantial risk to the electric power grid from large solar storms, emitting coronal mass ejections.  The last really big such event was in 1859, the “Carrington Event”, but Quebec suffered a major outage in 1989 after a solar storm. Solar storms are much less likely to affect cars and consumer electronics. 

What worries me is that the politicians and power company officials talk so little about it.  That makes me wonder if really effective prevention technologies are possible.  Is it about cost, or feasibility?  Newt Gingrich is to be commended for writing about this issue recently.  But why wasn’t this issue tossed around in the GOP Primary debates a few months ago?

A world like that described in this novel – unraveling in a second, literally – is not one that I could offer anything to.  There would be no point to my own existence, as a world that is relevant to my own abilities no longer exists.  Moral layering, long since forgotten, would re-emerge; the fact that my world had been destroyed because of an enemy's "fault" would not help my moral status.  At age 69, I could not survive.  In fact, the author details the triage and loss of respect for human rights as we know them, in a society where only some people can survive to start over with a pre-industrial society.  I can only cop-out and say, "Don't blow the infrastructure.  Take care of it.  Take it seriously."

Here’s an interview with the author on YouTube (no embed offered), by BookTV, link

Will there be a movie?  There is mention on YouTube but not on imdb, that I can find. Adaptation would be pretty straightforward; it might recall the 1983 film "Testament".

Update: Nov. 12, 2015

Forstchen has a sequel "One Year Later", published Sept. 15, 2015.

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