I grabbed a lengthy audio book as we left to visit folks in the Northeast and Midwest. Nothing like a good book to while away the miles of interstate highways. And William Forstchen definitely wrote a mile-burner with his novel “One Second After.” His story describes the answer to the question, “What if an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) bomb exploded in the atmosphere over the United States?”
Using a worst case scenario, Forstchen caught our attention from the minute the lights went out in the suburban home of history professor John Matherson. In a moment, the EMP silently burns out all electrical and computerized machinery with a finality that lasts through the rest of the year in the narrative. Only battery-run gadgets, antique machinery or vehicles without computers survive.
The bomb kills electrical components not people, and the nation jumps back into the 16th century. Not the 19th, because many of the skills and tools of that era disappeared as electricity simplified everything.
The first deaths come as the EMP affects airplanes dependent on computers. On the Interstate, vehicles stop when the computerized injectors quit. Interstate highways become parking lots.
We thought about the novel when we stopped at a nursing home to visit a loved one dependent on machines and medicines. In the novel, Matherson's father-in-law lives in a nursing homes. Quickly, supplies and medicines dwindle and, without working cars, the staff disappears. The town's leading doctor observes that without modern medicine the residents would have already died.
Before visiting loved ones, we texted and called on our cell phones. What a convenience we enjoy and now consider pretty much essential. The loss of power and cell phones abruptly truncated the teenage daughter's life in the novel. Looking at the room of thumbs twiddling over their phones, I could only imagine their shock if an EMP bomb cut off their phones.
Stopping to pay the tab at the drive-through, I wondered how long the clerk would take to figure the cost and the taxes without the digital shortcut of the computer. Could the restaurant even exist if all the modes of transportation suddenly ceased bringing in fresh food and the electricity stayed off? Worse yet, what would I eat if such a bomb caught us a few hundred miles away from home in a strange community struggling to survive with nothing to spare?
For sure, my country kin would enjoy their gardens and be able to hunt in the woods surrounding their property. Or they could if they did not run out of bullets and had seeds to plant. Still, how long would the acres of forest last as thousands around them struggle to keep warm and to cook food after the propane gas tanks emptied? All those situations arose in that “One Second After.”
At first we simply listened. Then near the end of the book, I read a hard news story considering the effect of an EMP. Say what!? This book was not just another science fiction? No, it wasn't. In the afterward, the author says he based his novel on a 2004 report to Congress about the threat of an EMP. The hard news story, the novel and the report all project a potential 90 percent death rate within a year.
Suddenly the novel was all too possible: a non-lethal bomb could disrupt modern life and cause death through deprivation of food, medicine, transportation and clean water and battles to gain these basics.
Yes, we caught up with folks during our travels. We also caught a deeper view of the destructive possibilities of modern weapons.