As my daughter said disdainfully, ‘How can they call it a “million-copy bestseller” when it’s not published yet?’ So sad to see such cynicism (or realism about publishing) in one so young. And then, when I opened the back of the book and saw the ‘Afterword and Thanks’, I began to realise that this is not a mere new book, it is the English version of a phenomenon.
Blackout was first published in Germany in 2012. Since then, the writer has been invited by national and international bodies to give talks and host seminars on his subject. He became a bestseller in Germany when his book was selected to be the ‘most thrilling topical book of the year’, and has been discussed widely on programmes devoted to science and IT.
So what has grabbed the attention of so many readers?
Blackout is a thriller. Not a murder story, I hasten to add, but a full-on, 1960s thriller. It begins with the main character, Piero Manzano, an Italian, getting involved in a rather nasty car crash. He comes out of it okay (if you don’t think about the head injury too much), but another driver’s in a very bad way. So much, so banal. But then we learn that the crash was caused because of a power outage that killed the traffic lights. This is in Milan.
From there we go to the headquarters of the power grid for Northern Italy in Rome, to the power plant at Ybbs-Persenbeug in Austria, to the energy transmission centre at Brauweiler in Germany, where there is a realisation that the whole of the main European power grid is starting to collapse. Faults in separate devices mean generators have to shut down, and other power stations become overloaded, causing more shutdowns across the entire network.
If the book was only a discussion of how some electrical workers earned more overtime, the book wouldn’t work. Instead, this is the story of a number of characters all over Europe, and how the loss of all power for days affects them.
The impact is dramatic and appalling. In a matter of hours, people are unable to travel. Fuel in garage underground tanks cannot be pumped; trains relying on electricity are stopped. Then industry begins to shut down. With no power to run them, few companies can run their equipment. If they can, after only a few days all generators will be dry. Hospitals too. Shops will be unable to sell when their tills, credit card readers and scanners go dead. Not that it matters, because without their refrigeration units, the food will start to degrade. And not only in the stores: the food held in warehouses will go off.
Cows in modern milking parlours will suffer agonies as their udders swell because the milking machines need electricity. Individual farmers will be unable to help the beasts, because automated parlours are the norm.
And as people grow desperate for food and heat, the rule of law will naturally begin to collapse.
Were there faults with this book? Well, I would have to say that the beginning was confusing. So many names are thrown at the reader in the first few pages that after a half hour I did find that my eyes were beginning to emulate Kaa’s in the Disney version of Jungle Book. Gimme a cast-list, please! Mind you, by then it was already too late; I was entirely hooked.
The main premise here is that a small number of specialists determined to cause dislocation to Western society could all too easily bring about anarchy. It seems a facile concept, but Marc has brought it to life with a brilliant evocation. And before anyone gets sniffy about the idea, remember Stuxnet. A joint US-Israeli software bug designed to attack the centrifuges that were essential to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which became the first international cyber-war weapon. Blackout is based on a similar idea, but one which looks entirely credible and feasible in this modern age of alleged Russian interference in the Ukrainian power grid in 2015, or their interference, potentially, in the recent American elections.
I think Blackout has come at an opportune time. For all my confusion with the huge cast of characters, I could not put this book down. It’s not the most fluid story, perhaps; it is not a murder story either. But it is a gripping tale that is credible, well-researched and compelling. And we should all be aware of the razor-edge our modern society balances upon.
I would like to add here that the translator deserves a special mention. All too often the crucial work of the translator is ignored, but with a book that is so technical, but which has to move along at a fair zip, the translator will have a large part to play in the success of the novel. So, well done, Marshall Yarbrough, for a brilliant piece of translation!