A Review of William Forstchen’s One Second After

This fictional story takes place in Black Mountain, a small college town in North Carolina, located along a major interstate highway in such a way that its claim to fame is that it provides water to the main city of Asheville.

Black Mountain has become a summer getaway for urban dwellers looking to escape the city rat race and is home to about 600 college students during the school year.

John Matherson is the primary character of the novel. When his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he retired from his job as a U.S. Army colonel, and moved the entire family back to Black Mountain.

He took a job as a history professor at the local college. She died in her hometown, surrounded by those she had known her entire life, leaving him widowed with two daughters.

On one afternoon in May, some four years after his wife’s death, the phone lines, electrical lines, everything goes dead, without any warning whatsoever. Initially there is very little panic from residents who believe it to be just a short-term power outage.

Upon realizing that all of the cars, except his mother-in-law’s old Edsel, a Ford mustang, and a few old VW’s have also died on the spot, Matherson begins to suspect an EMP attack.

The author then proceeds to detail events and realizations that would occur following such an attack. Initially families not overly concerned, believing the power will come back on within hours or days.

The failure on the part of the town government to believe the power outage was long-term allowed for looting of the stores after the first week and other desperate acts that later turned out to be detrimental to the long-term survival of the entire community.

Those who were thought to be covered by the use of generators are also struggling as the EMP wiped out the generators as well. The nursing home filled with elderly patients needing round the clock care becomes a virtual breeding ground for disease as staff deserts it and patients die off within the first week.

Diseases that were eradicated long ago in the United States return due to poor hygiene, lack of sterilization measures, and a dwindling supply of antibiotics.

Food and availability of medications becomes a very pressing issue very quickly. The local pharmacist determines that community residents’ dependent on daily doses of medication for dialysis, diabetes, and other health issues will begin to die within the first month.

Matherson’s own daughter is a type I Diabetic at risk if the power outage lasts longer than the four or five month supply he is able to secure for her.

Very few residents know how to plant crops and its late in the Spring when this occurs so the only food they could grow wouldn’t be ready for months.

Outsiders that were stranded on the interstate being to pour into the community and eventually the town must train and arm its college students to battle the outsiders and protect the town from invasion. Food rationing is implemented and even with that system, families are forced to eat their own pets in order to survive.

It’s a fiction novel but the scary part is that it is not over the top. As you read, you think about your own town, the local nursing home and people in your family that are medication dependent.

It really makes you think, “hey this could happen” someday. Honestly, it’s a very realistic portrayal of what could happen if an EMP or several were to explode over the Earth.

The story and plot for the book are amazing and thought provoking. I would say the one downside to this book is the actual writing and character development. It’s a poorly written book, filled with stereotypical characters who pop in and out when needed for a scene and are ignored the rest of the time.

There is plenty of backstory and details provided but they are dumped on the reader in long narrative sections, “telling rather than showing”. I would have liked to see more character development in the main characters and supporting characters as well.

But here’s the thing, even with the book being so poorly written, with long sections of narrative to dump backstory and details, with stereotypical characters, the book still got to me.

It still became one of those that you couldn’t put down until you finished it and at times it even brought tears to my eyes. The thought of something like this happening in my current hometown, was devastating.

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You can get One Second After on in either hardcover or as an eBook.

If you aren’t prepping when you start this book, you will definitely start before you finish it. It will also make you think about where you live, the people around you, and what kind if any support they would be when SHTF.

So though it’s poorly written, I can definitely see why this book was a best seller. It’s obvious that William Forstchen’s strength is in the history of military technology and its effects surrounding such an incident and not in writing mechanics.

The book covers several different lines that would be drawn following such a SHTF event and how those lines would be drawn and enforced.

It’s definitely going on my list of recommended reads, not just for preppers, but for every citizen on the planet.

So once you read One Second After and you are awakened to the fact that an EMP attack is not quite as far out of the realm of possibility as you may have once thought, what do you do? How do you begin to prepare to protect yourself and your family for a possible EMP event?

  • Consider faraday cage protection for your critical electronic devices.
  • Get your hands on a pre-1970’s car or one with limited electronic components that can short circuit. For later model cars, you can secure spare electronic parts and store protected to replace after an EMP event.
  • Formulate an emergency plan with your family as to how to live long term without electronic devices. Make sure your plan includes methods for food, water, medication and hygiene needs.
  • Work with your community emergency management personnel to formulate community wide action plans to be implemented in case of an EMP.

The consequences of not preparing in advance for an EMP are devastation and death for you and for your family. The consequences of preparing for an EMP that may never come is a little ribbing from your friends who think you are “crazy” or “paranoid”.

Personally, I think I would rather be thought of as “crazy” than to risk my family dying from something I could have prepared for ahead of time.

Lessons Learned

One Second After is famous, or you might say infamous, for its pull-no-punches depiction of the collapse, rally, and subsequent continuance of society in the aftermath of a paradigm-shifting EMP event, one that effectively erases the technological standard of the developed world in North America.

Despite any misgivings one might have about the book as a novel, the scenario that it vividly illustrates is a worthwhile learning tool, and one we should take advantage of.

Though an EMP event will result in near total calamity, it is survivable with the right approach and the right preparation. EMP specific preps will also serve you well in other societal collapse scenarios, so I suggest you pay attention to the lessons provided below. 

Medical Treatment and Medication Regimens Require Intensive Preparation

In One Second After, the protagonist’s daughter is medically dependent upon insulin for treating her diabetes, and other residents of the town, some young and some old, require regularly scheduled medical intervention in the form of treatment or medication to stabilize their conditions and sustain their lives.

It goes without saying that the loss of major medical infrastructure, trained personnel and specialty equipment means certain death for these unfortunate souls, as these conditions have long plagued mankind but for much of our history we lack the capability to effectively treat various conditions.

So there are two ways to approach the problem; the first way is to simply hope that things will not get so bad where the supply chain of vital medicines will be disrupted, power to essential medical equipment will not be cut off and trained personnel to administer both will not go missing, die or themselves be appropriated to take care of other, “bigger” problems.

The second way is to become solely responsible for the health and well-being of yourself and your loved ones. On the less intensive end of the spectrum this means stockpiling the needed medicines and obtaining specialized medical equipment.

On the far end of the spectrum this means learning how to manufacture medicines from scratch and even obtaining such intricate and out of the ordinary equipment as dialysis machines.

If you are already shaking your head at the prospect. then you’re probably not that serious about keeping yourself and your loved ones alive come hell or high water. It might mean intensive study along with the development and practice of new skill sets to make this possible for you.

You might have to acquire fantastically expensive equipment then learn how to maintain and operate it safely. It is what must be done if you want to free yourself and your loved one from such an unhappy fate. If you are not willing to do this you had better know how to acquire what is needed no matter what should such a scenario ever befall you. 

Desperation and Panic are Contagious

You have probably heard the term that attitudes are infectious before, particularly when referring to someone who has a negative attitude. This is undoubtedly true, but you might be surprised and hopefully relieved, to learn that it also applies to good attitudes.

Especially when the pressure is cranked up and lives hang in the balance of every decision it will be more important than ever to keep control of your emotions and also carefully modulate the public face that you were putting on.

Throughout the events of the book, there is a constant struggle among the characters, both those in leadership positions and those not, to keep their attitudes under control, and use them for good, not ill.

Giving in to feelings of desperation, hopelessness and defeat can quickly capsize a group of people and destroy cohesion, weakening a community and making all people involved ripe for exploitation, or just less effective in general, increasing chances of a negative outcome.

Conversely, being pleasant, positive and tenaciously dedicated to the pursuit of improving your situation will have a fortifying effect on those around you, synergizing group efforts and lifting those who have despaired up out of their pit.

This is a touchy thing; people can smell fakers, especially in the middle of a high pressure situation, so you have to live and present yourself as if you really feel one way, even if inside you personally feel like you’re dying and falling apart.

Curiously, how you feel inside can rarely keep pace with your external actions, so acting as if things are under control and you are improving your situation will often lead to exactly that happening.

Paradigm Shifts can make People Unpredictable 

People do funny things, and people do really funny things when they’re under pressure. I heard a pithy aphorism once, though I can’t remember where:

Pressure can turn a lump of coal into a flawless diamond, or an ordinary person into a total basket case.

That’s definitely true!

Generally speaking, people will not rise to the occasion when things turn hairy, but will instead revert back to a basic level of training, or lacking training back to their emotional baseline. That was something the protagonist, Matherson, had to cope with as he ascended into a leadership position over his community.

Events like the ones described in One Second After have a way of making people behave erratically. You might find that a meek, mildly antisocial person suddenly becomes more assertive. Someone who has always been kind and generous could potentially revert into selfishness.

A troubled kid could suddenly turn into a team player and a perfect angel might suddenly take a liking to criminality.

Broadly, emergencies and major disasters will just see the “volume” on most people’s personalities get turned up, but there will always be anomalies, and you must prepare for them. Failing to do so might land you a surprise that you can ill-afford when the chips are down.

“Analog” Skills Will Save the Day in an EMP/Grid-Down Situation

When the grid goes down in a big way- as a result of an EMP, cyber attack, coordinated sabotage or just a good, old-fashioned natural disaster- the modern technology that we rely on for our day-to-day business will begin to fail, instantly, quickly or slowly depending on the nature of the event.

Regardless, we will see a sort of regression; not quite back to the Stone Age but far enough back that those of us who have come to depend upon all of our many gadgets and electronic game-changers will be put at a decisive disadvantage.

The solution for us, just as it was for those of us living for the events depicted in One Second After, is to invest in and maintain analog skills and technologies that will continue to function even when cell phone towers, satellites and humble electricity give up the ghost.

This is best done by maintaining at least passing capability instead of trying to “spin up” those skills in order to meet the new requirement. Instead of relying on GPS, it will be back to a map and compass all the time if you cannot navigate via simple landmarks.

Battery-powered flashlights will gobble up what cells are to be had, and without new ones going on store shelves and subsequent power generation limited to solar or liquid-fueled generators personal lighting will have to provided by oil lanterns, or perhaps a simple torch.

Depending upon the nature of the event, you might simply be dealing with a lack of electricity or you might be dealing with the hard “death” of electronics brought on by EMP. In that case, nothing with a circuit board will function if it was exposed to the emission and unprotected. Plan accordingly. 

Don’t Count on Hunting and Gathering

A common refrain you will hear from preppers when discussing natural disasters and the collapse of society is their plan to rely on hunting and gathering to supplement what food stores they have, or to replace their reliance on preserved food.

Great idea, good skills to have, but not at all practical, especially if you are living in a town of any size and not roughing it way out in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors to speak up.

As depicted in One Second After, all of the Black Mountain’s residents that were able to hunt and gather all had the exact same idea; pretty soon the vast majority of the animals in the immediate area surrounding the town were wiped out.

Bears, deer, birds, squirrels, all of them. Hunted to localized extinction or very nearly, with the remainder fleeing further into the wilderness away from human habitation. It wasn’t too long before people were resorting to eating their pets.

One obvious part of the solution is to lay-in way, way more food than you think you could possibly need, but that is a bit like putting a temporary patch on a leaky submarine; pretty soon the pressure will crush you.

A better solution is to go all in on permaculture, the growing and raising of your own food, both plants and animals. If you aren’t living a permaculture lifestyle, you at least need to have the skills well in hand and develop a plan for quickly implementing those skills at the onset of a bad situation that threatens to turn into a long-term shifting of society.

Triage Will Become an Everyday Occurrence

When there is less of everything to go around in the aftermath of a major event, especially medical supplies, food, water, fuel and other absolute necessities, triage will become an integral component of your new reality going forward.

There are many examples in the book of essential supplies being rationed or appointed for people who had more life yet to give for their community, or those who served a more important role, such as defense. 

The old, infirm and others likely to die, or those who are flat-out not as useful when considering the continued survival of the community, will have to go without when rationing is in effect, which will be always.

You must consider that the only way our society produces such a bounty of all kinds of goods, among them food and medicine, is because the vast and incredibly intricate machine that is modern commerce stays properly lubricated and well-maintained, with every single part humming along in unison.

The moment any major component breaks down in that machine, or worse, a systemic failure takes place the veritable ocean of goods will begin to dry up and dry up quickly. Before very long at all, that means families, tribes and communities will have to start making some very hard choices.

Conflict Will Be Inevitable

The climactic scene in One Second After shows Black Mountain’s defense force, comprised of a small legion of college-aged young adults, going into battle against the rampaging horde of the Posse, a cannibalistic band of marauders led by a straight-up Satanist, and also the group responsible for countless atrocities in the aftermath of the EMP.

In the end, the town is saved and the Posse is destroyed, though it comes at a cost of nearly two-thirds of the town’s Defense Force.

Whenever a paradigm-shifting event occurs and the new order of things is certain to be extremely lengthy, even indefinite, you can depend on conflict occurring.

Factions may fight for resources, may fight for control or just fight for the sheer, bloodthirsty joy of raping, pillaging and looting in a new land made free of societal or moral constraints. You’ll need to be ready to counter all of these if you want to stay alive and stay safe.

This is much easier said than performed; fending off a looter or two, an opportunistic criminal or a refugee crazed and driven mad by grief and lack is one thing.

Repelling massive bands of those who are hell-bent on taking everything you have, particularly ones who are organized and skilled, is something else entirely, and that means you’ll need plenty of other fighters on your side- left, right and front.

You Cannot Count on Government Intervention

Any events covered in One Second After, all federal and state government is effectively out of the picture from the very beginning.

Near the very tail end of the book, approaching a year after the onset of events, a military aid convoy arrives. Prior to that, the government reverted to what it always does in times like that; self-interested in its own self-preservation.

There is a crucial lesson in this, and it is that to rely on Big Brother looking out for your best interest during an event that can threaten Big Brother’s very existence is foolhardy in the extreme.

If there is one thing you can count on the government doing it is looking after its own interests, and it will be triaging its resources and efforts accordingly. That means you are going to be on your own.

Well, not precisely alone. You do have friends, family, neighbors and fellow residents you can rely on, right? If you don’t, ask yourself why not. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you can be the one man army who can run off and survive totally and entirely on your own.

That is largely a fallacy. I know there are some historical examples of extremely motivated, well trained or just flat-out lucky people surviving apocalyptic events by their lonesome, you can count them on hands and feet. 

No, people do best in tightly-knit units that have a mutual interest in seeing their group succeed. Those are the people you can count on, not some far away federal or state government agency.

Assuming the situation stabilizes and a community remains more or less intact following some major SHTF events, you’ll see governance revert to a form that has been the norm for much of human history; small, local and one personally invested by the residents.

You can get One Second After on in either hardcover or as an eBook.

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updated 11/20/2020

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