Book Review: ‘One Second After’

When Nuclear Blasts Are Aimed at Disrupting Communications

One Second After (2009, Forge, 350 pages, U.S.$24.95), a new hardcover by William Forstchen, may seem, at first, an unlikely choice for review in VideoAge. Written as fiction (but based on fact), it is the story of what might happen in the year following an EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) attack on America caused by a nuclear explosion not necessarily meant to kill people, but more specifically to disrupt communications. Years of research drawing from Congressional and Pentagon studies went into the development of the book, which includes a foreword written by U.S. conservative politician Newt Gingrich. Forstchen has a Ph.D. from Purdue University with a specialization in military history and the history of technology. Why, then, is it appropriate for inclusion in our pages?

As Gingrich writes in the foreword, “Few in our government and in the public sector have openly confronted the threat offered by the use of but one nuclear weapon, in the hands of a determined enemy, who calibrates it to trigger a massive EMP burst. Such an event would destroy our complex, delicate high tech digital society in an instant and throw all our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages.” Gingrich sees One Second After as “a terrifying ‘future history’ that might come true” and compares it to “perhaps the most famous of the ‘future history’ books of modern times, George Orwell’s 1984… Orwell, by his book, raised an awareness that just might have saved us from Big Brother and the Thought Police. I think that Bill’s novel may do the same.”

In other words, One Second After is meant as a siren call for the world to snap out of its comfort zone and consider an alternate reality that would result from a nuclear blast eliminating all modern technology — technology that obviously includes television, especially since it’s becoming all digital.

An EMP burst is the result of a nuclear bomb being detonated above the atmosphere. The explosion sends out an intense electro-magnetic wave that fries the delicate digital circuitry we so blindly depend on. Quite a bit of emphasis is placed on the pitfalls of technological advances that, under normal circumstances, we see as positive. As computers and digital conduits become smaller and more intricate, they become more vulnerable to the impact of an EMP. The only devices to remain unharmed in the story’s attack are those with infrastructure dating back to the 1940s and earlier — AM radios, other analog devices and early model telephones. Their reliance on more basic technology — like vacuum tubes — rendered them immune. It is a twist of fate that plays out later in the book’s plot when the characters take solace in a library stash of Scientific American and Popular Mechanics back issues. “In those golden pages are plans from 80 years ago, 100 years ago, to build radios, telegraphs, steam engines, batteries, internal combustion engines, formulas for nearly every advance in chemistry,” they realize with relief. Rather than continuing the trend of hyperspeed modernization, it seems as if it’s in society’s best interest to return to basics and focus on the development of more sturdy technology.

In essence, Forstchen is playing with the duality of digital technology’s importance and the simultaneous danger of our dependence on it.

People’s reliance on television for information and peace of mind throughout history is raised at multiple points throughout the book. Shortly after the EMP strike, chaos begins to brew in Black Mountain, North Carolina — the setting of the novel. One elder resident ruminates, “Look, I’m old enough to remember 1941. Kennedy in 1963, when Reagan was shot, 2001 of course. Always we at least had radios, television. Someone to tell us what was going on, what to do, offering leadership, and that rallied us together.” And later, the protagonist John Matherson adds, “We were spoiled unlike any generation in history, and we forgot completely just how dependent we were on the juice flowing through the wires, the buttons doing something when we pushed them. If only we had some communication. If only we knew the government still worked, a voice that we trusted being heard, that would make all the difference.” Forstchen seems to imply that societal reaction to disaster is directly affected by the presence (or in this story’s case, absence) of digital technology. Being able to switch on a television and thus feel connected to the outside world helps prevent chaos within cities.
As the action unfolds, human breakdown and madness are escalated by the fact that no one seems to know when the blanket blackout is going to end. There are no reassuring voices on the radio, no stoic politicians on the TV screens, and these absences result in maddening guesswork. This becomes increasingly frustrating as food, water, and medical supplies dwindle and refugees from nearby cities begin flooding into Black Mountain. The city’s residents are hesitant to take outsiders in because they are unsure as to whether the city’s supplies are sufficient. A ration system is already being strictly maintained because city officials don’t know whether the blackout will last days, months, or even years.

As time progresses, disintegration continues. Disease and starvation lead to rioting that in turn leads to more death and general devastation. “Amazing isn’t it,” notes Makala, a nurse and key character. “Three weeks ago we were all Americans. Hell, if somebody said an offensive word, made a racial or sexist slur, my God, everyone would be up in arms and it’d be front-page news. Turn off the electricity and bang, we’re at each other’s throats in a matter of days.”

Makala’s words encapsulate the grim suggestion of One Second After’s central theme, which is that without electricity — with all traditional modern communications silenced — society would crumble. It’s an interesting reality to consider as you sit pondering media like television’s impact on your own life. The novel’s protagonist constantly catches himself comparing the apocalyptic experiences of post-EMP America to scenes from his favorite movies and marvels at “how much movies had so defined so much of the country’s image of self.” Now, with the screens blank, what sort of picture remained? Does reality define media or does media define reality?

Drawing from Forstchen’s prose, we see media take on two roles in its interplay with society — mirror and leader. People tend to view fiction as reflection of a life they themselves have not led, and turn to the likes of broadcast news for guidance in times of troubled reality. Consider that when analyzing popular trends in television viewing. And also consider reading One Second After, as it impressively serves as both mirror and leader in regards to a potentially devastating global threat. KR