BLACKOUT

You probably shouldn’t read (as I did) Marc Elsberg’s thriller, Blackout, while cable news is concentrating on the catastrophic outcomes of a spreading coronavirus. Blackout does not feature a viral pandemic, but it does imagine similar societal chaos. Blackout’s pandemonium comes after Europe’s electrical grids experience a total breakdown. In a very short time, each European country goes totally dark until, finally, the entire continent is essentially functionless.

Elsberg’s novel takes place in the dead of winter. No heat. Gasoline can’t be pumped. Radio and television stations go off the air. Without cold storage, food rots in refrigerators, then in supermarkets and in suppliers’ facilities. Machinery doesn’t function. Entire operations, like nuclear reactors, malfunction and melt down. The stock market crashes. People are cold and hungry and scared. Absolute chaos ensues.

Blackout is a thriller that reads like a thriller, with every page describing a nail-biter scene. It follows several separate characters who are coping with the disaster. An engineer attempting to save his machinery from permanent damage. Software programmers trying to figure out how this madness could possibly have happened. A mother caring for two small children while her husband struggles to tamp down the bedlam. A dairyman, watching his cows suffer because the milking machines no longer work. Elderly couples fleeing nuclear fallout. A reporter after the scoop of her life. All these people, and more, are coping. In France, in Switzerland, in Belgium, in cities and towns and rural outposts. American forces muster to send aid. Then, one by one, the United States begins to go black, too.

From the outset, a talented Italian hacker suspects foul play. Piero Manzano figures out what programming is the most likely source of the malfunctioning software that controls the grid. When he goes to the authorities, however, they suspect his motives. Because he has been in trouble with the law before (although he insists he only hacks to find software weaknesses), they fear Manzano himself might be involved in the nefarious scheme. Instead of working alongside, they lock him up. He escapes. They capture him again. He escapes. What ensues is a whirlwind sequence of discoveries and encounters and misunderstandings. Manzano won’t stop trying to solve the blackout problem that so intrigues him, while the authorities won’t stop chasing him across Europe. Kind of like The Fugitive, with different parameters.

And while Manzano takes center stage in what turns out to be a book-long chase, the other featured characters appear regularly, too. Elsberg wrote Blackout in short vignettes. Since most of the scenes are only a page or two long, the pace of the novel is very rapid-fire, a staccato drumbeat of action and suspense. It’s a bit chaotic, too, with so many characters coming and going. I like books where the prose suits the action, and this one (translated from the German) bounces astutely in real-time from event to reaction to event. I assume the original German moved just as swiftly. Even with its eerie echoes of pandemonic madness, Blackout is genuinely a thrill to read.  –  Ann Ronald

Also available by Marc Elsberg: Code Zero; Helix.

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