Forstchen explores existential threat in '48 Hours'

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Black Mountain resident and "New York Times" best selling author William Forstchen's newest book, "48 Hours" explores the difficult decisions facing humanity in the hours before a coronal mass ejection from the sun.

Before the 2009 release of “One Second After,” which would go on to hold a spot on "The New York Times" Best Seller list for 12 weeks on its way to selling over a million copies, few people were aware of what life might look like in the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.

Author and Montreat College history professor and faculty fellow William Forstchen painted a detailed portrait, set in his hometown of Black Mountain, depicting the struggles modern society would face moving forward in a world devoid of electricity.

In his newest novel, "48 Hours," Forstchen examines humanity in the hours before an eminent extinction level event. 

"A CME, or a coronal mass ejection, is a solar storm," Forstchen said. "When I wrote 'One Second After' I didn't even know about it. Hardly anyone did."

Bestselling author and Montreat College history professor William Forstchen's newest book, "48 Hours," examines the threat of an extinction level event caused by the sun.

Forstchen began reading about the solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event. The powerful geomagnetic storm produced a CME that interacted with Earth's magnetosphere.

In modern times, such an event would likely disrupt the electric grid. As Forstchen researched the phenomenon, he was drawn to another naturally occurring product of the sun — coronal proton ejections (CPE). Known commonly as solar flares, severe versions of these disruptions can send high levels of radiation toward Earth. 

In normal circumstances, he continued, the earth's magnetosphere would protect it from a coronal proton ejection. In "48 Hours," Forstchen conceives a scenario in which a CME peels away the planet's magnetic field before the sun releases a massive solar flare. 

"I came across articles where those events happened in reverse," he said. "I just postulated they happen the other way around."

It was easy to imagine a world where "bureaucrats mess everything up and you have your heroes running around and your bad people and cities burning," the author said. "But then I thought, 'that sucks, it's derivative.'"

In "One Second After" and the subsequent books in the trilogy, Forstchen spins a tale of humanity facing an uncertain future in an unforgiving new dark age. The story is a cautionary tale of society's dependence on modern technology and "One Second After" was cited on the floor of U.S. Congress as a "fact-based scenario" of life after an EMP attack.

Its effectiveness as a harbinger of potential disaster was enhanced by the author's use of relatable characters in a real-life setting. While Forstchen intended to ring an alarm about the threat of an EMP, the story itself crystallized once he began thinking about how the loss of electricity might impact the daily lives of everyone. 

"I was wrestling with the book and it was going nowhere, and I was at a (Montreat College) graduation ceremony," he recalled. "This is before Anderson Auditorium was updated and it was unbelievably hot in there."

Forstchen had just scratched the idea of building a narrative around a heroic, Jack Ryan-like character as he sweat through the ceremony. 

"I'm sitting there, and I'm looking at the audience and looking at my (students) and I had what I call a 'God moment,'" he said. "The entire idea formed that quickly and I'm wondering what happens to everyone in here if this nightmare happens?"

As Forstchen struggled to find the story that would properly relay the threat of a solar-related extinction level event, it was another real setting that prompted his epiphany for "48 Hours."

While lamenting his struggles to develop the story for his latest novel to a friend, he learned of the Springfield Underground in Missouri. The warehouse facility provides 2.5 million square feet of space in a former limestone mine. It contains over three miles of roadway and rail service. 

Forstchen realized "we could survive down there."

"I was in a green room waiting to do a television interview and I had another 'God moment,'" he said. "I got home and immediately starting writing this book."

The conflict in the book, however, revolves around just who would have access to the limited space. It pits citizens against government officials in the final hours of the world as we know it. 

"Suppose you only have 48 hours, then why do some people survive and some don't?" he said. "Why should senator so-and-so have an assistant who survives while the Nobel Prize laureate guy who lives down the street gets left there?"

Forstchen admits that writing about such a bleak topic is taxing, but as he did with "One Second After," he felt an obligation. 

"It's a message," he said. "We all face our mortality individually, but suppose all of humanity was facing its mortality simultaneously. What would you do?"

The book, Forstchen hopes, will make readers ask themselves what's important. 

"It's all so fragile," he said of society. "We live in the most technologically advanced civilization in the history of humanity and the sword of Damocles hangs by the slimmest of threads."