By January 4, 2011

Book Review: One Second After by William R. Forstchen

Before the rush of the holidays I had the time to read One Second After, a book by William R. Forstchen. Briefly, the book is about a small North Carolina town after a series of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) shut down the American power grid. The book straddles between cautioning against such an attack and discussing the after-effects of a prolonged disruption of services.

Mr. Forstchen did a lot of research about the effects of an EMP blast, and the probability of such an attack happening on American soil. I think an EMP attack is something to be informed on, but the lengths you go to prepare for such an event is up to you. On a more general level, the book uses an extraordinary event to illustrate how tenuous our lives are in a “just in time” inventory world, and how even a short period of time can have dramatic consequences.

An EMP blast would, theoretically disrupt modern electronic devices. This includes stuff like mobile phones and electric clocks, but possibly things like modern automobiles and even pacemakers. There is some debate among the military, science, and preparedness communities about how vulnerable these types of things are. For example, some believe that the hood and frame of a car serves as a makeshift faraday cage that may protect the vital electronic doodads inside. Others believe that an EMP will destroy anything that has any semblance of complex circuitry inside.

Part of the problem — and part of why the book is so compelling — is our ignorance and limited knowledge about EMP after effects. According to an afterword in the book, the last practical EMP test was conducted by the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. Everything after that has been based on simulations. Whether those simulations are accurate or not is well beyond my familiarity with the subject.

Instead of trying to figure out how realistic the book was, I concentrated on what Forstchen was trying to communicate.

Here are some of my findings, both on a preparedness level, and also on a thematic level.

  1. Know your limitations. This is a major aspect of the book that covers many parts of our lives. Your limitations may be a lack of training or skills. For example, the main character John does not seem to possess any advanced medical skills, nor did he ever demonstrate a good grasp of a wrench. This leads him to make friends to cover his gaps in knowledge and abilities. He also had a Type I diabetic daughter, and knew her weakness and her needs for insulin. John immediately knew what he needed to procure to take care of his family.

    Key takeaway: know what you can do in a prepardness situation — and what you can’t do.

  2. Lone wolves die alone. There is no way John, or any character in the book, or probably any real life person, could completely go a prolonged disruption of service alone. John does a very good job at collecting a group of individuals that do possess the skills and materials that he will need to survive. He makes friends with several medical personnel, a hippy VW mechanic who supplies the town with running, electronics-free cars, and even engineers who help bring utilities back to the town. He also uses his personal relationship with a town pharmacist to get extra medication for his daughter.

    Key takeaway: don’t expect to go through a prolonged disruption of services alone. Make friends.

  3. Have extra supplies on hand. One thing I like about the book is that it points out the weakness in “stockpilers.” No one knows when the lights are going to come back on, so no one saved enough for everything. I think this is wise — you can’t plan for everything. The pursuit of such is madness.

    However, you can do some preparation and not be caught completely flat-footed. John’s family has some extra food on hand and takes some initial steps to conserve drinking water. I already mentioned buying more insulin than initially needed.

    What do you need in your house? My dog Rosie is on phenobarbital for severe epilepsy. She may die from a severe attack. I like to refill her prescription when she has about a week’s supply left. I also try to reorder my contact lenses when I’m down to a two week supply.

    For me, my comfort zone is about two weeks of goodies in the house. Yours may be shorter (the government recommends just 72 hours), or it may be longer (a friend of mine has accumulated two years’s worth of supplies for his family).

    Key takeaway: make a list of the things you really need, and make sure you have enough on hand to last through your comfort zone. I am going to buy a backup pair of glasses after reading this novel. Without vision correction, I’d be screwed.

  4. A strong, homogeneous identity may be critical to survival. This one is ancient history — strong unified communities can survive adversity that would destroy weaker communities of equal or even larger size. On a macro level, the book draws a distinction between two small communities and Asheville, a metropolitan area of about 400,000 people. The two smaller communities work together and have a set of unified principles and goals. Asheville, on the other hand, is depicted as a chaotic mess, where everyone is fend-for-yourself. Asheville is ruled by a single person, whereas John’s town is governed by a group of individuals.

    The book continually — to the point of some annoyance — harps on the citizens of John’s town staying “Americans.” The characters of the book, including John, take on more and more Christian observances throughout the story. Forstchen makes it a point to convey that all branches of Christianity were welcome in the town (there’s an inter-denominational moment that addresses this).

    I think One Second After represents Forstchen’s research and personal beliefs on what would make a society survive a severe disruption of services. That being said, I can’t help but think that Forstchen believes that a homogeneous, Christian group of conservatives is the best moral and social combination to survive. Since I am none of those things, it makes my radar go off.

    As a thematic element, we frequently see the anti-thesis of the homogeneous group in zombie fiction. A clash of personalities and interests (typically presented as polar opposites of self-less vs the selfish) always leads in failure and death. It’s almost a trope of zombie literature — you have to have someone fuck with the plan so the zombies can break into the mall and kill everyone. It was nice to see Forstchen’s community survive because it cooperated and had shared goals.

    Key takeaway: make sure you and your “community” get along and have similar views if you intend to participate in a multi-person support group during a disruption of services. This means both friends and family. If you and your in-laws have radically different political views you may all be better off in separate groups.

Summary

You may disagree with Forstchen on a few things, such as how dangerous or widespread an EMP may be, or if a unified or diversified community has a better chance of survival. Regardless, I think One Second After is a good book and well worth reading. It might even be a good book to recommend to folks on the fence about “putting back” a few items in case of an emergency.

Strongly recommended

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