Lights Out! Fun with EMPs

You take a weapon that destroys technology and sends modern folks back to the pre-industrial age, and what do you have? The perfect plot device for exploring nineteenth and early twentieth-century problems with modern sensibilities and know-how. The EMP accomplishes all that and so much more.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has become a popular plot device in fiction, ranging from a workaround for a casino heist (Ocean’s Eleven) to a stage-setting national disaster in William Forstchen’s One Second After trilogy.

Three stories stand out that use it well.


In Forstchen’s three books, high-altitude nukes disable computers and the power grid in the USA and other parts of the world during a coordinated attack. The EMP blasts are front and center and begin the action, with the results as speculated by the author being truly horrific as the USA descends into various levels of chaos. The sober storytelling and lack of any other fantastical elements makes this one of my favorite uses of an EMP, even as it was interesting noting that the author tweaks the EMP’s effectiveness in the second and third installments, perhaps in response to a few critical reviews. Regardless of technical accuracy regarding the effectiveness of the EMP, the subsequent events are believable and compelling.

dark knight sons of batman

An EMP also plays a prominent role in the final act of The Dark Night Returns where a nuke throws Gotham into darkness, setting the stage for Batman and his modded Mutant army, rechristened the Sons of Batman, to come to the rescue. The results of the EMP demonstrate the contrast between Superman and Batman as the nuke is the Soviet Union’s response to Superman’s interference in the Corto Maltese fighting. Superman triggered the escalation; Batman cleans up the mess, breaking the rules along the way.

matrix hovercraft

Third, my pick for favorite use of EMP comes from the maligned second and third movies of the Matrix trilogy. Zion’s hovercrafts have EMPs as a last-ditch defense against the Sentinels. Far from being an “I Win” button, here the EMPs cause as many problems as they solve, acting more like a delaying device as Hovercrafts and Zion’s defenses are just as susceptible to the EMP’s disruption. The added peril is that anyone that is tied into the Matrix will be killed as soon as the EMP is triggered, thus resulting in some wonderful tension.

Those are my quick picks. Where was your favorite EMP? And extra credit for guessing how many people Ocean’s crew would have killed when they triggered their “pinch” for their heist in the middle of Las Vegas.

P.S. Stay tuned for updates. I’m going to be looking for  early reviewers for my upcoming YA sci-fi novel Nineveh’s Child in the next few weeks. Find out more by signing up for my newsletter here.

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