Book Review: One Second After by William R. Forstchen

As an amateur prepper, I was excited when my sister lent me a copy of One Second After.   I had heard good things about the book and read a few reviews on amazon.  It seemed like a prepper’s classic.

One Second After excels in its portrayal  of the human cost of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse)-caused disaster.  Forstchen distills a massive continental cataclysm into the struggle to find insulin for his daughter.

Another good aspect of the book is its understanding of post-disaster politics that will most likely develop.  Strongmen will fill the vacuum of the nonexistent government and the clans will fight for territory and resources.  Unlike Mad Max, most of the survival will be boring farming activities and common sense sanitation.  Forstchen nails this.  The central importance of medications and pharmacies was very well done. But it seemed a little weird  that the pharmacist had a gun but where was her husband?  Of course, the protagonist uses his manly strength to help the poor little woman pharmacist clear out the riffraff, thereby earning the right to get more insulin than others.

This brings up a good point.  When is it moral to take more than your ration?  Or to get it before others? The movie Contagion brilliantly delved into the moral dilemma of a health care provider getting access to the cure before others.  (If you haven’t seen Contagion, please watch it.  About as accurate as a disaster movie will get.)

One Second After gets the “Big Picture” right, but since it is a novel, the long passages of “telling” come across as dry and didactic.

The book falls flat (on its face) in a couple of technical errors and the military final battle.

First, the book describes all vehicles (except old diesels) becoming irreparably inoperable due to the EMP.  This will not happen.

In the EMP Commission Critical National Infrastructures Report done in 2008, 18 cars were tested with artificial EMP’s of up to 50,000 volts per meter (by the way, most researchers do not believe the voltage would exceed this in an EMP).  Only a few of the running cars were affected.  All but one restarted immediately.  All cars that were not running survived the experiment without any harm to the vehicles’ microelectronics.

Having the majority of vehicles undamaged would change the book dramatically even if the gas pumps were not working.  (Hand pumps, anyone?)  Long term, of course, fuel transportation would dribble to nothing.  So, whatever fuel was left in pumping stations would not last long.  But initially, most people would have the fuel in their tanks to use.  And, like so many disaster movies before and after, in One Second After, bicycles have inexplicably vanished from the earth.  It’s either ride in a car or walk.  No alternative!  I guess it’s difficult to make your protagonist “cool” if he’s riding a ten-speed.

Forstchen’s credentials would lead the reader to believe he’s got a grasp of strategy and tactics of war (he’s a professor of military history) but his protagonist becomes “too stupid to live” when he and a few good guys decide to risk everything by using the only operating car(!) to explore a dangerous, lawless locale.  What is the pressing, nay, critical need to risk their lives?  To “check things out“.  I’m sure the author would argue that they needed to begin a dialogue with those in the city but, why would they risk it?  Why not send a courier with a letter and a white flag?  At least then you only lose one messenger.   But no, it has to be the leaders themselves, lightly armed.  They start assaulting guards at a check station.  D-uh.  The guards are of course imbeciles.

The other letdown was the final battle.  The book’s entire buildup ramps up to this final conflict and then Forstchen skips it!  He just describes the mopping up sequence.  He missed out on all the tension the approaching army would have created, especially if the battle could have gone against the protagonists.  Ah well.

I’m glad for the book, but all preppers be advised, your car will probably work after an EMP.  And don’t go exploring during a breakdown in society to “check things out.”  It might be slightly hazardous to your health.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: One Second After by William R. Forstchen”

  1. Joan Landes Says:

    Wow, this is really cool that most modern cars would be okay– at least till they run out of fuel. So what is your opinion about the actual risk of an EMP occurring as an enemy attack?

  2. DalDal Says:

    I’d give it less than 10 percent chance in our lifetimes. Whoever shoots it off must realize that they’ll be committing suicide, so that limits it to non-state actors. Probably not going to happen. More worrisome is an X-class solar flare. One of those missed the earth not long ago that would have caused mega damage. Luckily el sol is eerily quiet right when it should be throwing out flares right and left.

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