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David Khudoyan
December 19, 2017

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Final Paper
A thought experiment on an EMP catastrophe

Contemporary society is extremely dependent on technology. Scientific knowledge is applied for practical purposes in every possible field, in every industry. Out of all scientific knowledge, two branches of physics have as of late become almost synonymous with the word “technology,” which speaks for the scale at which they are integrated in our everyday lives. These two branches of physics are electronics and electromagnetism. They have become so central to us, so sophisticated, their respective experts so highly demanded, that they have branched out into countless other sub-fields, like digital electronics, analogue electronics, circuit design, semiconductor devices, embedded systems, etc. But let us not go into detail about each one of these branches, but rather focus on the uses of the general fields of electronics and electromagnetism. These are used extensively in communication, entertainment, production, manufacturing, farming, military, data storage and analysis; the list goes on forever. Note that most of our society is no longer in the process of post-industrial modernization. Although electronic and electromagnetic systems are changing, becoming increasingly efficient, increasingly complex in design, increasingly simple in operation, there no longer exists a field in which the reliance on these branches is minor. Admittedly, this reliance varies from country to country, even from city to city, in a directly proportional relationship with statistics like GDP and HDI, which can be explained by the fact that these technologies are still relatively new and thus expensive to implement, although undoubtedly cost-efficient in the long run. Nonetheless, together with the forward-movement of civilization, this reliance necessarily increases. The pace at which it increases has varied and will vary in future for different parts of the world, but the direction will not. As civilization develops, provided no major catastrophe occurs, the average standard of living and wealth will increase, and with it will inevitably come a total and complete dependance on the fields of electronics and electromagnetism.
Because of this dependance, it would be worthwhile to investigate the effects on society of a permanent malfunction of all devices the function of which is based on the fields of electronics and electromagnetism. Although such an investigation could take the form of an essay or a research paper, a novel would be most appropriate, given the lack of hard evidence and the speculative nature of the matter in question.
Let us approach the writing of this novel with two goals in mind. The first is to paint a realistic picture of society after the malfunction of all electronic devices; the second is to make the novel entertaining and to maximize the satisfaction one derives from reading it. To begin with, we must find a way to justify this malfunction. The justification will undoubtedly be an electromagnetic pulse of some sort; a transient electromagnetic disturbance that, apart from (at a high enough energy level) being able to damage physical objects, is able to disrupt electronic equipment. What is left to figure out is the origin of an EMP with energy levels sufficient to affect our whole planet. Our options are as follows:

A particularly powerful solar storm. A phenomenon caused by magnetic reconnection on the Sun’s surface, leading to the acceleration of charged particles in the direction of Earth.
An accidental discharge of a man-made EMP satellite weapon.
An extraterrestrial EMP attack; possibly a pre-invasion measure taken by a hostile alien race to reduce humanities’ defensive capabilities. 
Leave out the origin of the EMP.

The first of our options is the most realistic. In fact, in July of 2012, a huge and potentially damaging solar storm barely missed Earth. The threat of a solar storm is real, which makes it relatable to our readers without the need for them to leave the real world setting. This realism allows us to really play with the readers’ emotions, to make them feel fear, anger, sorrow on a profound level, since the same catastrophe can within reason occur in actuality.
Our second option is taken from Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids. Although still somewhat realistic, the power of a man-made EMP weapon is unlikely to be enough to affect the whole planet. What makes this option viable is how tragic it is; if it were to happen, paradoxically, the progress of humanity would halt the progress of humanity. Such self-destruction of civilization would really make the reader question whether there is a point at which further technological advance may prove detrimental to humanity, given humanity’s unsatisfiable will to power and wealth.
The third option leans more towards science fiction. It’s benefit comes from the fact that it opens up a myriad of plot lines that we would otherwise be unable to follow. An extraterrestrial EMP attack is different to our other options because it provides humanity with a common enemy that benefits from humanity’s suffering. What’s more is that aliens could have endless sources of motivation for the destruction of humanity; the only limit for these would be our imagination. Motivation could be that they have destroyed their planet and are looking to colonize Earth, that they are just eliminating potential future competition for resources, or that this is just a hunt for them, in which they are the predators and we are the prey, similarly to the 2010 science fiction film Predators. Each plot line would bring a unique twist into our novel, adding elements of uncertainty and adventure to the already inevitable chaos that would ensue after an extensive and powerful EMP hits Earth.
Lastly, we can choose to keep the origin of the EMP uncertain. This option was successfully implemented by Wyndham in The Day Of The Triffids. The reader was only given clues throughout the novel regarding the origin of the bright lights in the sky that caused permanent blindness. Whether it was the comet or the Soviets, Wyndham deliberately wrote his novel in a way that made the reader change his point of view various times throughout and ultimately remain dubious. The fact that Wyndham never explicitly tells us what caused the lights leaves room for speculation, which is always a good thing in a novel, since it engages the reader, practically forcing him to utilize his mind. Speculation is also a good thing for a novel due to the fact that it prompts controversy and discussion among readers, which helps attract public attention and may lead to increased sales – something an author should undoubtedly keep in mind when writing a novel even if monetary compensation is not the primary objective. What makes the fourth option particularly good in the case of our novel is the fact that it lets us utilize all benefits from the other three options. By keeping all options possible, we can benefit from the realism of the solar flare, the tragedy of the EMP weapon malfunction, all the while keeping the alien-related plot lines open. Hence, the best course of action would be to implement a strategy similar to Wyndham’s, hinting at different possible origins of the EMP at different times throughout the novel but never explicitly establishing the truth. The way in which we would implement this into our novel is as follows. Prior to the catastrophe, there would be a television broadcast reporting unusual electromagnetic activity in the upper levels of the atmosphere, during which various experts would introduce their points of view, with the majority of experts leaning towards the solar storm explanation. Some experts would disagree but not give their own opinion on the matter. All broadcasts and transmissions would be interrupted shortly after and the rest of the theories will come from our characters. Some would be speculation, while others may come from someone in possession of insight information. For example, specifically to introduce another point of view on the origin of the EMP, one of our characters may be a former air force pilot, who was on air patrol on the day of the catastrophe and saw an unknown object in the sky shortly before losing control of his fighter jet and parachuting out. The object could have been an alien spaceship, an EMP warhead, or a malfunctioning satellite falling from its orbit.
Let us now establish the rough timeline of our novel, the location in which most of the action takes place, as well as some of our main characters. Unlike Christopher’s The Death Of Grass, the amount of time our characters spend in the pre-apocalypse world would be just long enough to introduce them to the reader and to demonstrate the complete dependance of civilization on technology. In The Death Of Grass, a substantial part of the novel is dedicated to the pre-apocalypse world because it is important for Christopher to show how his characters and people in the Western world in general change and how morality becomes unimportant when the instinct for self-preservation kicks in as the Chung-Li virus slowly spreads across the globe and evolves. In our case, the apocalypse happens instantly, so there is no need for such an introduction. Furthermore, unlike Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids, the setting of our novel is identical to the real world. There are no fictional elements in it, hence there is no need to dedicate time to build up a fictional world; we can jump straight into the action after introducing our characters. After the EMP disrupts all electronic devices, our novel would go on for approximately a five-year period. Such a time frame is appropriate because it is just sufficient to show the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, the chaotic and dangerous period of adaptation that follows, as well as the beginnings of the rebuilding of civilization. There is no need to make the story go on for longer than that because after this initial period the remaking of society should go rather smoothly and at an increasingly fast pace; the interesting part happens right after the catastrophe since it is most fascinating how society adapts to and overcomes the sudden and drastic change in their everyday lives as well as all the problems that come with the permanent malfunction of all electronic devices in operation. This is in part because, unlike Stewart’s Earth Abides, a significant percentage of the population will survive the chaos that ensues after the EMP, which would allow for a relatively fast remaking of society. By contrast, in Earth Abides, it makes sense for the time frame covered by Stewart to be longer because it is intriguing how (or whether) a small group of people attempts to build up civilization to its pre-apocalypse state.
Moving onto the main characters, a group similar in size and composition to that of John from Christopher’s The Death Of Grass would work well. A strong male leader (perhaps not initially but getting stronger over time), another male who is ready and willing to do the “dirty work” for the group,  ensuring their survival in the post-apocalyptic chaos, a kind female concerned with the well-being of others that helps keep the group together. These three characters would not only help us tell the story of a world without electronic devices, but also, similarly to The Death Of Grass, allow us to examine the interplay between morality and self-preservation, and how the prior eventually becomes unimportant and individuals focus entirely on latter.  The small size of the group would allow for deeper and more meaningful interpersonal relationships between all members, which would both make our novel more interesting to read and allow for a finer examination of character development through the genuine conversations our characters would have with each other.
It is fitting for our story to be set in the Western world due to the higher degree of dependance on technology. A large city like London or New York would work well since in these cities the change in peoples’ lives will be most drastic. We could also appropriate Christopher’s general storyline as it would work well in our apocalypse. Just like in The Death Of Grass, our characters would escape whatever large city they initially reside in and move to a place, most likely a farm, where they would be safe and able to grow crops and live autonomously. Most of our novel would be dedicated to the journey and some of it would be dedicated to their life in this new place.
Following the electromagnetic pulse and the permanent malfunction of all electronic devices, the world would change acutely. Some of these changes would be noticed and felt instantaneously, while others would be delayed. Let us examine the post-apocalyptic world in our novel and discuss the implications of these changes. First of all, telecommunication would no longer be possible. Radio and television broadcasts, telephones, telegraphs, the Internet. All will stop working due to electromagnetic interference. It would prove impossible for governments to control and coordinate the population, which would amplify the chaos. Some methods of transportation would stop working. Airplanes and trains rely heavily on electronics and would therefore stop functioning. Some old automobiles and ships would remain operational; in particular, those that do not rely on electronics for ignition. It is probable that modern ignition systems can also be tweaked and made to work without electronics, but that would require a time and a certain level of expertise in ignition systems. However, all automobiles and ships would become useless anyway after a while due to the fact that the production and distribution of all kinds of fuel would come to a halt. Therefore, the few automobiles and ships would only operate until the fuel already at gas stations runs out. Electricity production would halt as the EMP would disrupt the flux linkage necessary to produce electromotive force (voltage).


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