William R. Forstchen is a sometime pilot of an antique plane, a college professor, and a dad. Like so many writers, what he lives comes out in what he writes.
Think on that while you ponder where the hell S.M. Stirling is coming from.
But in his apocalyptic One Second After, Forstchen's lead character is plunged into the new Dark Ages of a United States that has been attacked and rendered almost entirely powerless by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP hereafter). And you can hear in so many of the lines of what he writes, the back-of-the-mind dread of a dad worried about his kids, knowing the scenario he paints is entirely too plausible. There is no suspension of disbelief required for this plot. I could build an EMP bomb with off-the-shelf components and an old Popular Mechanics (no joke, they wrote up a functional design. The sticky math and wiring is left to you, but hey - send in a picture of your completed project and they'll publish it in the magazine). No nukes are required if all you want to do is shut down a city. If you want to put the brakes on a larger area, well, you need a little more horsepower.
That's pretty much the end of the review. Let's spend a few minutes in the sometimes unpleasant world of What If.
What If everything stops working? Anything as sophisticated as a transistor radio is toast. An EMP overloads those delicate little integrated chips and solid state devices with a huge induced current. Zap, and that's it. If it's completely surrounded by metal with no gaps, a continuous Faraday cage - you'd be smart to insulate whatever you're keeping inside the cage from the cage itself, too - you should be okay. Unfortunately, testing isn't easy without an EMP generator, or a convenient nuke detonation so you can see if your equipment is up to the challenge.
So Target, Wal-Mart, and maybe even 7-Eleven sells those blister packs of walkie-talkies that supposedly reach as far as 20+ miles on the GMRS frequencies. Not the el cheapo Buck Rogers Jr. Ranger ones, good equipment from Motorola and Cobra, for example. Put a couple of those babies in a continuous steel containment - a plain ol' popcorn tin might be all you need - and when the lights go out, open 'em up and you've got communications. Now that we've all had immediate communication for so long, it's hard to imagine getting by without it. Now imagine getting by without it, and the infrastructure that makes modern life possible has all stopped. Scary.
Getting around. Does your car have electronic fuel injection? Yeah, forget that. It's dead, a 3500lb paperweight. Unless you've got a spare engine control computer and ignition control module stashed in an EMP-hardened container, it's only good as raw materials for other things. So: maybe hit the junkyards. Those engine control computers aren't free, but if you're concerned by the state of global unrest as I am, it looks more and more appealing.
Bicycles always work. Your fancy bike computer will be deader than Latin, but that's all. Got a battered old aircooled VW you putter around in? If it's got breaker points and a carburetor, good news - that old-school technology might have a high frustration factor with the need for adjusting points and tuning the carb, but it shrugs off everything but a direct nuclear blast. Tractors, cars, airplanes that use magnetos for ignition will all survive an EMP okay. Other bits inside might quit - radios, for instance - but the essentials will be fine. My crusty old tractor, for example, starts with a crank. A crank. There are some tractors out there that are started with a shotgun shell. Older diesels that don't have sophisticated electronic engine management, they'll be okay too, most likely. An early 80s VW Rabbit with the diesel engine only had seven wires running from under the dash to the engine. SEVEN. New ones have more like 127. The old ones will keep running.
Keep a new headgasket and new head bolts handy. I understand that's an issue with those.
I'm not trying to scare you, but I am trying, too. Do I fear imminent attack, no. Do I fear attack, eventually, yes. There are steps to take that can help minimize your exposure not to the attack - can't guess where that might happen - but to the resultant loss of capacity. Mobility, communications, food, medicine. These are all things that we use all the time but don't think about until we need them. When we do need them, our modern infrastructure supports that immediate need with an immediate supply.
Now would be a good time to think about having some kind of supply set aside, whatever it may be, to relieve some of the stress when the infrastructure might not be able to provide for our needs. We are as weak as we are unprepared.
Sorry about the grim tone.
But hey, if you've ever wanted to buy and refurb an old air-cooled Beetle, this might be a winning card to play to support your argument.