I just finished reading a very scary book: One Second After by William Forstchen.
It took me a long time to read because I don’t like thrillers. They depress and scare me. Nonetheless I felt compelled to see this book to the end because there is the very real prospect that it could come true.
Warning: plot spoiler ahead. Read at your own risk.
For those unfamiliar with the book, the story centers around a small town in North Carolina in the aftermath of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon. These weapons are not dropped on land; they are detonated in the upper atmosphere and take down the power grid. It’s hard to fathom the long-term results of such an event until you read this book.
A few things jumped out at me as I read.
One: The people of this country are kept alive and healthy artificially. What I mean by this is, the health and well-being of millions of people are entirely due to modern surgery, modern medicines, and modern treatment techniques. Take away electricity and all of those medical miracles disappear - along with the people who benefit from them. Knowledge may still be there, but how much can be used if diagnostic machines are not working? Pharmaceuticals will still work, but how quickly will they disappear if manufacturing is nonexistent? Surgical techniques will still exist, but how little can they be used if there is no anesthetics or sterilization?
People would die, die quickly, and die often. An infected cut can kill without antibiotics. Anyone kept alive through miracle drugs may not make it (a Type-1 diabetic character plays an important role in the story). Surgery will revert to Civil War-era methods and all the pain and horror that implies. Without the ability to maintain sanitation standards, cholera and other diseases will sweep a weakened and hungry populace.
Two: The people of this country are totally, completely, utterly unprepared to live without power. Without electricity, we are incapable of obtaining the most basic of needs: heat, light, toilets, food, water… Not only do we no longer have the knowledge of how to secure those necessities, but we also no longer have the low-tech tools needed to accomplish them.
At the end of the book, when some relief arrives for the stricken people of the region, the main character John (a historian by training) is talking to a soldier, who observes, “We’re back a hundred and fifty years.”
John replies, “No, not a hundred and fifty years. Make it more like five hundred. People alive in 1860, they knew how to live in that time; they had the infrastructure. We don’t. Turn off the lights, stop the toilets from getting water to flush, empty the pharmacy, turn off the television to tell us what to do…We’re like sheep for the slaughter then.”
Three: The veneer of civilization and decent behavior is very, very thin. Take away our basic necessities and people quickly turn ugly and brutish, and not always with the goal of survival. Some people turn ugly and brutish because they can, and there’s no one to stop them. It makes the people who stay noble and self-sacrificing under hardship and famine more wondrous.
The enemies who dropped the EMP knew it wasn't necessary for them to attack and kill us; they knew we would do it ourselves. And they were right.
If you can come away with this book still mocking the concerns of Preppers, you’re made of stone, not flesh. This book instills an almost desperate desire to stockpile more food, more OTC medicines, more nonhybrid garden seeds, more canning jars. (It’s worth noting that I’ve been canning for two days solid.)
Well worth the read. Just expect to lose some sleep over it.