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1,429 of 1,688 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sobering, yet flawed, April 14, 2009
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This review is from: One Second After (A John Matherson Novel) (Hardcover)
I purchased this book because I have been flogging the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack scenario to friends and relatives since early 2008, when it became apparent to me that the U.S. had lost the will to halt nuclear proliferation among terror-sponsoring states. I reasoned that a stateless actor or an apocalyptic regime might calculate that an EMP attack would actually create more casualties and more economic damage than a direct strike on any one city. An EMP attack also has the advantage of being the equivalent of hitting the broad side of a barn. Just get the nuke up a couple hundred klicks and go "boom," rather than trust your missile's guidance to hit an urban center from offshore or (alternatively) risk detection of a smuggled warhead. Lastly, the straightforward atomic bomb designs a nascent nuclear state is likely to deploy don't make as big a crater as a sophisticated "hydrogen" (fusion) bomb does, but they're already very effective at creating EMP.

Given the above, one would imagine I'd be among the vanguard in extolling this novel. For reasons great and small though, I was ultimately disappointed. In my opinion the story's biggest flaw is its implicit assumption that EMP would render irrevocably inoperable any integrated-circuit based device -- i.e., anything more advanced than wires, coils, and vacuum tubes -- and by extension anything that depended upon such devices (your modern automobile, for example). My readings so far of the findings of the ongoing EMP Commission (in particular April 2008, see suggest that this is a gross exaggeration. True, while the near-certain collapse of the electrical grid would immediately harm the transportation infrastructure (imagine no subways, no commuter rail, no street or traffic lights), the vast majority of automobiles would still be mobile. Similarly, while the cellular phone and land-line telephone systems will be severely crippled (at onset) or entirely nonfunctional (after 72 hours) due to their ultimate dependence on the electrical grid and sophisticated switching technologies, there is little reason to believe that battery-operated two-way radios and (especially) simple AM and shortwave receivers would be harmed at all. The author's belief that only antique autos would run and only tube radios will turn on following EMP is key to creating the conditions of immobilization and isolation on which the rest of his story arc depends. And when I couldn't buy into the author's core assumptions, the plot lost much of its punch.

From that point onward, the book's other shortcomings became more grating. Some old-school editing, say from my bespectacled junior-year English teacher, would have helped a great deal. Mrs. K would certainly have caught the "horde" used mistakenly instead of "hoard", the "striped" for stripped, the "breech" which was supposed to be a breach and the "than" / "that" typos which mangle a sentence. Adverbs in dialogue were recycled to the point of distraction. There's only so many times a character can respond "sharply" to another in a single conversation before the reader wants to attack the book with a sharply instrument.

It would be a terrible shame if this book's vision convinced readers that an actual EMP attack would be unavoidably catastrophic, and survivable only by a select few who empty their bank accounts and utterly abandon their former lifestyles in preparation. I sincerely believe that this is not the case, and that the most-likely EMP attack scenarios can be survived by nearly everyone who can plan for three months without the grocery store, ATM, and utility services. Yes it takes some forethought and a little planning, but think of it as a life insurance policy for your entire family that actually pays off when you wind up living instead of the other way around.

I would've loved an EMP disaster novel to be a smash hit that would later become the movie that would galvanize an irresistible push for robust missile defense and an uncompromising policy of nonproliferation. I desperately want a concerted government program to harden the protections on high-value electrical infrastructure and build increased EMP resistance into our evolving telecommunications system. Maybe these things will still happen, but I don't see this book being the trigger for them.
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Showing 1-10 of 207 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 26, 2009 2:45:59 PM PDT
The reviewer is miss informed if he believes any "modern" automobile would ever run after an EMP event. A non shielded microprocessor will be wiped of all memory, therefore the instructions that it is required to give the engine will be lost. He further greatly overestimates the ability of our modern citizen to plan for 3 months without a grocery store (3 days would be a stretch for most). All electronic devices are dependent upon a microprocessor of some sort, even it is only to display a digital time. If you think the phone system will ever work again, without replacing every electronic switch, you have not been in a modern switching station as I have. If anything, this author was too mild in his estimation of what an EMP would do to modern society. Finally, yes some battery powered radios will work...where are we to get the batteries from when the last one goes dead?

I will agree that the editor failed to complete the task, however that does not negate the great value of the story and the warning. This threat is real. It is more than a little possible. Remember Korea launched an ICBM just days after the books release, and who else is crazy enough and hates the west enough and has bombs available.

The author has done his homework and has created a great read, full of human emotion and some of our darkest fears while pointing out the strength and character of the few pioneering spirits that still move among us. I picked up the book and read it straight through. Editing be damned!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 29, 2009 8:10:44 AM PDT
Mr. Yeatman, contra your opinion, I believe I am unusually well-informed regarding EMP effects on automobiles and various electronic devices. Again, I will appeal to the April 2008 "Critical National Infrastructures" report of the ongoing EMP Commission. On page 115 (Chapter 6: Transportation Infrastructure), the report summarizes the commission's electromagnetic pulse testing on 37 automobiles of model years 1986 through 2002, using field strengths up to 50 kilovolts per meter. Of the 37 cars, "No effects were subsquently observed in those automobiles that were not turned on during EMP exposure." If the car was running at the time of the pulse, the risk to the electronics was greater. EMP stopped the motors of three of the 37 cars, and a majority exhibited "nuisance" malfunctions such as blinking dashboard lights. Note that all three cars whose motors stopped were, in fact, re-startable. "The ultimate result of automobile EMP exposure," the section concludes, "could be triggered crashes that damage many more vehicles than are damaged by the EMP." This falls far, far short of the completely-immobilized post-1975 automobile fleet postulated by Dr. Forstchen's book.

So apparently many of the microprocessors in cars will keep working. What about the ones in two-way radios? Page 153: "Consistent with older test data, none of the radios showed any damage with EMP fields up to 50 kV/m." Regarding your battery comment, there's other ways to power a radio aside from disposable batteries. Solar can do it. A generator is overkill, but would work. Better yet, simple hand-crank emergency radio receivers sell for as little as fifteen dollars.

As for your other points, I believe you misconstrue or missed some of the sentiments I expressed in my review. You have been "in a modern [telephone] switching station." Note in my review my statement that the telephone systems "will be severely crippled," and dead within three days. You say the "threat is real." I believe I spent the entire first paragraph of my review laying out the unique threat of EMP attack. You say I give our fellow citizens too much credit suggesting that they have the ability to plan for three months sans shopping and modern conveniences. I will merely point out that it doesn't require an exceptional intellect to stockpile food and water, the most important elements. It takes a particular desire and motivation that, sadly, most people do not have. But are most people able to do it if they want to? I say yes.

My main problem with the book has nothing to do with belief in the possibility of EMP attack. Never did. It has to do with the fact that an intellectually coherent story would have unfolded in a completely different manner had the author stuck to known, documented, real-world EMP effects. The story's refusal to acknowledge the actual consequences of EMP makes the book a far less compelling read.

In reply to an earlier post on May 1, 2009 7:20:08 AM PDT
Even if your car did work, would gas stations be functional? Also, isn't it reasonable to assume that there could be lots of car crashes effectively stopping all highway traffic? With a complete breakdown in communications, its going to be difficult to call in wreaker crews, ambulances, etc. To drive anywhere would be risky unless you could successfully turn around, since there could be lots of roadblocks. Assumming you could get gas at least initially (you would have to pay cold hard cash for gas), you would have to be sure to stick to back roads, as any driving on highways would be terribly risky without knowing where road blocks are.

In reply to an earlier post on May 5, 2009 12:18:55 PM PDT
Mr. Tarrant raises a number of fine issues for discussion. The number of road-blocking wrecks will be strongly related to the level of traffic congestion in a given place at the moment of attack. And he rightly notes the immediate difficulties with getting stored gasoline pumped without electricity. This stands in contrast to the novel, in which gasoline scarcity never seems to become an issue. In a real EMP scenario, one would imagine motorcycles and ATVs getting increased usage for reconnoitering over moderate distances, both for their fuel economy and their ability to slip through road blockages.

But I think these talking points further underscore my central complaint. Wouldn't brainstorming the effects above and thinking through the consequences have made a more-believable, and hence more-compelling story?

Posted on May 9, 2009 11:25:01 PM PDT
C. Peterson says:
The errors that grated on me the most were "could of", "might of", "would of"...on & on, throughout the book. Oh, the misused or simply missing punctuation, also.

Posted on May 29, 2009 1:24:12 PM PDT
Having read the Ebook copy called lights out, this whole situation could happen. As a ham radio operator I have looked at it with care and I think the possibility is there. I have moved my station to the basement, but the 4X8 sheets of steel carved a hole in my wallet. Next question is how do I protect my solar panels. Interesting reading.

Posted on Jun 2, 2009 1:11:38 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 2, 2009 1:21:58 PM PDT
I was about to purchase this book as I have been fearful of EMP for a number of years. My research has been admittedly limited to certain sites and persons that have a vested interest in hyperbole. So I went too and read and read and read...... Yes the threat is real, yes we would suffer greatly and yes many would die. The real main problems are the food shortages. We currently plan for day to day replenishment from regional sources to market to home. This would be disrupted not only due to transportation but further due to farmers now being so dependent on technology. The shift in numbers is huge from small farms to the huge production mills that are in operation today. So and while Mr. Palmer speaks to the 37 cars being operational therefore no one should be scared, the reality is that the food stores would not be able to sustain the food, the machines that are un hardened and are logistically dependent on micro processors would be scrambled and due to the numbers of the ready work force to switch from consumers to producers will not happen due to they themselves starving within three plus days and searching for food and not producing it, ANARCHY!!! (As Bill Murray says..."Dogs and cats living together....") These things unfortunatley are the result of a consumption/disposable nation. Our house of cards. So, and while EMP is a potential reality you may also want to consider solar flares. Currently the magnetic shield that protects us has a large hole and science does not know why. The prediction is for solar flare eruptions (sun spots) to be at it's peak cycle at May 2013. A solar flare took out Quebec in 1986 with great effect. The same flare today, due to increased dependence on technology and the hole in the magnosphere would be catastrophic. It is a potential x factor of 10 to 20, depending on who you read. All I have read suggests one only need plan for food for up to six months, have a quality water filter and a reliable weapon and any other life sustaining thing necessary for the individual. Anarchy will rein in urban areas but the end result would be clearly life for those who plan ahead. In my opinion EMP either by man or nature is our single greatest threat, for no one knows the time or the day and it will come as a thief in the night.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 9, 2009 11:30:44 AM PDT
Mr. Boyle makes a number of comment-worthy remarks, but the one I would like to address at the outset is his summary of my own postings as "no one should be scared." I don't see how one can read the conversations above and reach that conclusion. Just because I assert in my review that EMP would not have the extreme effects that Prof. Forstchen novelizes doesn't mean that the effects wouldn't be an unprecedented danger to tens of millions of people. And when I write that "the most likely EMP attack scenarios can be survived by nearly everyone who can plan for three months [...]," the unwritten implication is that if you have _not_ planned, you are an order of magnitude more likely to die(*). Still too rosy for y'all? Now clearly I have not gone to the grisly lengths detailing the horrors of post-EMP America that some commenters find warranted, but my principal goal was to write a book review.

That said, I think Boyle and I are in the same ballpark when it comes to preparation for its own sake, or (if you prefer) as a duty of free and responsible citizens. Mr. Boyle mentions solar storms, but similar preparations can safeguard you in the event of ice storms (e.g. Quebec again, 1998), earthquake, civil unrest, tropical storm, etc. As Cody Lundin writes in his book(**), "Be prepared, not scared."

(*) The majority of such deaths would be due to lack of adequate (uncontaminated) food, competition for securing food resources, or exposure due to risky travel to find food.
(**) "When All Hell Breaks Loose", published by Gibbs Smith, 2007.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 22, 2009 1:02:39 PM PDT
V. Reid says:
Yes! While the story was compelling, it could HAVE been so much more credible had the juvenile spelling and grammatical errors been cleaned up. In addition, many of the spontaneous dialogue was the corniest presidential-speech-crap ever concocted. I was expecting "thee" and "thou" to show up at any moment.

Posted on Jun 26, 2009 5:56:09 AM PDT
It is clear from the timing of the release of the book that the 2008 report of the EMP Commission was not yet available when the book went to print. Had the 2008 version been available, some of the details of the story may have been changed a bit. For example, while some cars would not work others would only for the driver to wind up in the middle of a trip to realize gas stations weren't functioning. In our economic impact assessment of EMP, we showed that even a regional event would have a range of serious effects depending on whether it would be a low, medium or high impact scenario. Given similar effects from a 30-100 year solar storm as evidenced from recent reports from NASA, NOAA and the National Academy of Sciences, there is the possibility of a year-long blackout with follow on power rationing for 4-10 years if simple hardening measures are not taken. Certainly a 3 month supply of food and the awareness of how to live without power for that long would go a long way to make it possible for communities to survive all kinds of serious catastrophes. A year long supply would be better. I think the motivation for the book was to have people think through just how to do that.

As to typos, I would expect that the publisher responsible for final copy editing will correct those in the next printing.

If there is a movie version to come out, hopefully, the author and other technical experts can tweak some of the details to harmonize it with the more recent technical information available. But, overall, the issue is a real one and worth bringing to public attention. There will be a first nationwide conference on the issue this coming September 8-10 at Niagara Falls appropriately titled, "Permanent Continental Shutdown". Both those who fall within the lower to higher range estimates of the potential damage ought to consider attending and sharing their views.
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