When Life as You Know It Ends
William Forstchen’s One Second After follows the life of John Matherson after an EMP strike rids Black Mountain, North Carolina of electricity. Matherson, a former Army Colonel and well respected college professor, recognizes the extent of the crisis early. Having learned about them during wartime, he informs the town’s leaders about EMPs:
“We finally figured out that when you set off a nuke in space, that’s when the EMP effect really kicks in, as the energy burst hits the upper atmosphere. It becomes like a pebble triggering an avalanche, the electrical disturbances magnifying… It’s called the ‘Compton effect.'” (63-64)
The EMP rendered most cars useless, led to a run on banks, and made communication at a distance impossible. Planes, including Air Force 1, fell out of the sky. The nation’s inhabitants had grown so accustomed to the luxuries of modern living that chaos ultimately replaced the former comforts.
Prepping for the Long Haul
Matherson knew that power was not coming back anytime soon, so he took immediate steps to prepare. The father of a diabetic daughter, Matherson collected as much insulin as he could from the pharmacy. He stocked up on cigarettes to both sustain his nicotine addiction and potentially use them as currency. Lastly, Matherson wanted his family close. His father in law was located in a nursing home, which was very poorly equipped to handle an EMP. Technology meant to help the elderly survive shut down, resulting in the unfortunate demise of many in the facility. Matherson saves his father in law from this same fate by bringing him home to be cared for by those who love him.
Matherson appreciated how desperate many of the town’s inhabitants would get when left without food. He pulled out his guns, coached his daughters how to use them, and had a plan in place to ensure everyone knew what to do in the event of a break in. Matherson’s prescience kept his family protected and secure.
Collaboration and Cannibalism
Matherson and the rest of Black Mountain’s leaders need to find allies as law begins to erode. They work to develop an alliance with the neighboring Asheville, only to disappointingly come away without a mutually beneficial agreement. The Black Mountain leaders therefore need to rely more heavily on themselves. They build a militia of college students to protect against outside threats, which rumors suggest grow nearer with each passing day. A townsperson bore witness to a cult-like collection of people called “The Posse” slaughtering and feasting on other humans. The people of Black Mountain will not let the town fall without a fight, so they ready for battle.
War breaks out in Black Mountain, which takes both a physical and mental toll on the survivors. I won’t spoil the outcome, but I’ll instead touch upon the psychological effects of disaster Forstchen so beautifully illustrates. In times of bitter distress, people devolve into their most primitive states. Food, water, family, and shelter are all that are valued, and people will kill for each. At the community level, horrific decisions about who lives and who dies need to be made. I argue that in circumstances like in the aftermath of an EMP, we can become increasingly more inhuman. Forstchen’s narrative is an incredibly gripping description of such circumstances that we can both learn from and enjoy.
If you’d like to chat further about the book, feel free to contact me or leave a comment in the comment section. You can read my review of Forstchen’s sequel, One Year After, right here. You can also find other Forstchen books in the Bunker Basics Store.