No one knows what's going on, and everyone's house — along with every hospital, nursing home and prison — is suddenly without power. You don't go to work, and almost no one else does. You and your neighbors are going to have to fend for yourselves, as the nation's critical infrastructure (not to mention the daily conveniences you took for granted) have disappeared in an instant.
The production and transport of food and consumer goods grinds to a halt. Water supplies get real thin, real fast. You and everyone you know are going to have to get by on whatever nonperishable goods you have in store, and in most cases those won't last long. In short, all hell is about to break loose.
"Read my nightmare"
Welcome to Bill Forstchen's nightmare world. "My hope is that you'll read my nightmare — and let's make sure it never happens," he told Xpress during a recent interview at a diner in Black Mountain, where he's lived for 15 years.
In his new novel, One Second After (Forge Books, 2009), Forstchen paints a distinctly local picture of post-electric life. A Montreat College history professor who's penned 40-some books, he imagines the end of the world as we know it, telling a tale of what he thinks it would be like in Western North Carolina.
One Second After ventures into terrifying, if speculative, territory. It posits what a year in the life of the town of Black Mountain would be like in the aftermath of what's known as a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse. The EMP attack, readers learn late in the book, was staged by adversaries of the United States who fired three nuclear missiles high above America. When they exploded, the resulting radiation was transformed while passing though the atmosphere into an intense electromagnetic energy field that rippled down to the ground, overloading almost all the electronic circuitry in the continental U.S.
In the aftermath of the strike, there's an aching silence, as Black Mountain residents wait in vain to learn exactly what has happened and how they're supposed to deal with it. Chaos quickly reigns: Stores are looted, nursing home residents languish and die without food and water, supplies of critical medicines run low. Then comes word that bands of starving refugees from cities like Charlotte are migrating to the mountains, trudging up the highway in hopes of finding safety and sustenance that simply aren't there.
Diseases and deaths start to mount, but the town's political and law-enforcement leaders eventually cobble together some semblance of order, instituting a kind of local martial law and a strict food-rationing plan while training a militia of Montreat College students to defend Black Mountain from incursions by armed bands from elsewhere. They set up barricades at the main gateways into town, refusing entry to all refugees except those with some skill that would be useful in rebuilding critical infrastructure.
A year after the EMP attack, the light at the end of the tunnel begins to flicker on, as the national government is reconstituted and repairs to the electrical grids are at last within reach. But a staggering percentage of the population has perished, and it's clear that it will take decades for the country to regain the prominence and quality of life it had long enjoyed — if indeed it ever can.
Readers of One Second After might well come away thinking Forstchen's goal is to scare the hell out of people, and they'd be right about that.
"Please don't ever think I'm daring to compare myself to George Orwell, but when my brother was in high school and I was 11 years old, he was reading 1984. I grabbed the book and read it, and it scared the hell out of me, just like it scared the hell out of generations of people," he says.
"There are quite a few cautionary books that helped in some small way to prevent something" bad from happening, Forstchen adds, and it's his hope that One Second After (to which Warner Brothers bought the film rights before the book was even released) will serve as a wake-up call on EMP, which he considers a danger necessitating immediate national prevention programs. ("We were so damn vulnerable, so damn vulnerable, and no one did the right things to prepare, or prevent it," an Army general laments near the end of the book.)
"I believe the threat of America being hit by an EMP weapon is the single greatest danger to the survival of America," Forstchen states on a Web site promoting the novel. "If I have ever written a single book which I pray is a service to my country and, on a personal level, my daughter and those whom I love, this is the one."
Feeling the pulse
One Second After was born about five years ago, when Forstchen was paying one of his frequent visits with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, with whom he's co-written several popular works of historical fiction. (Gingrich "is, without doubt, the most brilliant man I have ever met, a joy to work with and a damn good friend," Forstchen writes on his Web site.)
"Newt introduced me to Congressman Roscoe Bartlett [of Maryland], who is one of my great heros," the author recalls. Bartlett, a leading Congressional voice of alarm about EMP, sponsored 2004 legislation creating the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. He told Gingrich and Forstchen about the commission's sobering conclusions, which included:
• "Several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse."
• "A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication."
• "EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences. … It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society."
• "The current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected."
(On a brighter note, the commission also found that "Correction is feasible and well within the Nation's means and resources to accomplish." Measures such as hardening key nodes in the national electrical grid and emergency-communications gear would mitigate the effects of an EMP attack, the report said.)
Forstchen was stunned, he says, and immediately set out to pen a novel depicting the consequences of a successful EMP attack.
Published just this spring, the book is already amping up national attention concerning the EMP threat. Last month, Forstchen made the rounds in D.C., appearing on various television programs (including a yet-to-air segment on C-SPAN's BookTV) and speaking to several think tanks and members of Congress. Then he spent several days advising military leaders from the U.S. Strategic Command.
Along the way, Gingrich has been touting One Second After as proof of what he maintains is a dire need to halt Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs. The book, Gingrich told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference in May, is "based on fact, it is accurate, and it's horrifying" — adding that the novel's scenario is "why I have said publicly that I favor taking out Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites."
Some critics scoffed at the assertion, deeming it alarmist scaremongering. Michael Crowley, a senior editor at The New Republic, retorted that the notion of an EMP attack is "a scientifically valid — if not strategically realistic — theory. … The attention-grabbing narrative of the pulse threat offers … a fresh argument for some familiar hobbyhorses — namely a multibillion-dollar national missile-defense system and even pre-emptive military strikes against charter members of the Axis of Evil."
Conservative hawks, Crowley charged, are using Forstchen's "pulp-fiction fantasy" to scare up dubiously dedicated defense dollars.
But Forstchen, who also favors pre-emptive strikes to prevent Iran and North Korea from developing nukes, believes the threat is all too real. "The best source for a lot of the information is the EMP Commission reports from 2004 and 2008," both of which are readily available online, he says. "If you think this is sci-fi, read them." (Click here to access those reports in The Xpress Files.)
What's more, he reports, he's recently learned that "a major solar storm could do the same thing that an enemy EMP attack could" — meaning that the threat, as he sees it, is not limited to enemies attacking the U.S.
Both hawks and doves, he says, need to take EMP seriously. "I've been trying to get across that we need to keep the politics out of it. I think we can all sit at the same table and realize that this is dangerous, that we're setting ourselves up to lose our entire grid — and then what's going to happen?"
Bringing it all back home
Trying to imagine what would happen after an EMP attack proved tricky at first, says Forstchen, because he got off on the wrong foot. "I thought, the natural format for this is a kind of Tom Clancy approach," he reveals. "You've got characters in New York and Tehran and all that stuff. And it just didn't work. It was crap."
But while sitting on the stage during a Montreat College graduation ceremony, sweltering in his black robe, Forstchen explains, "I was looking out at the audience, and suddenly it just floored me: I mean, the whole book formed in my head right at that instant. I'm looking at kids I've taught for four years, and you really get close to them at a small school like Montreat. I'm looking at neighbors and friends, people like that, and I thought, write about us."
The result is a narrative replete with local references; readers will recognize road names, characters (some of whom even keep their real names in the novel) and local institutions (such as the Asheville Mall, which is looted and burned by rioters).
How have Forstchen's neighbors reacted to his novel's hometown setting? "A couple have said I've really triggered nightmares," he confesses — which was, after all, a key part of his intent. "They said it made the story connect."