Blackout is one of the few books I’ve read in the last couple of years that lives up to the word “thriller”. Originally released in Germany, and a best-seller of over 1,000,000 copies, Blackout has finally been translated into English (by Marshall Yarbrough) and is being published by Black Swan Press. Full throttle from the get-go, with every chapter bringing a new turn of the screw that raises the stakes even higher, this novel is an exciting delve into a world without power. While at times some of the writing in Blackout comes across plain and prosaic, the un-pretentious approach to storytelling becomes infectious and part of its charm.
The story starts with Piero Manzano, an Italian programmer and ex-hacker activist, as he is involved in a car crash caused by failing traffic lights. Soon, we begin to realize it is not just an isolated incident. The whole of Europe is losing power, the grid being completely destabilized. The narrative flits quickly between a large cast of characters: Francois Bollard, a French government official at Europol who comes across as a bit of a scumbag at first but reveals his true quality later on; Lauren Shannon, an enthusiastic, energetic American reporter staying in Europe; Sophia, a resourceful operative at the EU headquarters in Brussels who takes a shine to roguish Manzano. Overall there are more than 10 viewpoint characters we follow, which is quite extraordinary in a novel of 437 pages, including snippets from the enigmatic villain’s perspective. At first I did find this method of storytelling quite disorientating and couldn’t get into any of the characters purely because I didn’t get long enough to spend with them. The narrative doesn’t linger on any one character for longer than a few pages at any time, forcing us to jump between perspectives. Soon, however, you acclimatize to it and realize the strength of the approach is in providing the reader with jigsaw pieces that slowly come together to form a global view. In addition, it allows the tension of the narrative to be ramped up as stories are delivered in intertwining parallel, key threads only connecting at the last moment.
Most of the characters are thoroughly enjoyable perspectives to read. Their characerisation is simple, at times bordering on the cliché (Shannon in particular conforms to the stereotype of the nosy, in-your-face reporter), but always with a touch of something original to keep it interesting. For example, Manzano’s complicated open relationship status with two women is hardly the standard profile for the protagonist – and the fact he gets progressively “uglier” throughout the book as he goes through more hellish trials subverts another stereotype of the good-looking hero. Manzano also proves convincingly resourceful, using several ingenious tricks to discover key information about the enemy hackers threatening the infrastructure of society as well as escaping capture.
Some of the characters felt less essential to the story, such as Marie (Bollard’s wife) and Annette (Marie’s mother). Though their story did eventually come to intertwine with the main plot, I couldn’t help but feel it was only included to give an everyman’s perspective on human suffering. While this is certainly needed in a novel of this type, I felt it could have been achieved in significantly less word count: perhaps one or two key scenes rather than an entire thread throughout the book. Having said this, it is a minor criticism, and aspects of Marie and Annette’s stories certainly interested me even though they were not the most captivating aspect of the novel for me. Overall, the more emotional dimensions of the plot are hampered by the rather literal translation which renders them bathetic.
The plot of Blackout is exceptionally well crafted; I would describe it, in fact, as watertight. The level of research which has gone into creating this near-apocalyptic world is also to be praised. I found myself learning about government process, infrastructure, technology used in power systems, energy grids, hacking techniques and all seamlessly integrated into a narrative. The societal breakdown which begins to occur once power is absent is compelling and feels alarmingly real, as do the circumstances for its occurrence. Think of the opening of Stephen King’s Cell playing out in slow motion and you might have an idea of the kind of calamity.
Though the first half of Blackout is intriguing and pacey, it is in the latter half of the book where things really get going, and where Elsberg starts to flex a few more literary muscles with some striking imagery and emotional scenes. Though I do feel that some of the power of the prose has perhaps been lost in translation, there are still some moments which have emotional resonance. In addition, the satisfaction one experiences at the peripetea, the turning point of the narrative in which the protagonists start to fight back, is colossal; Elsberg really pulls off this key moment, and gives us the schadenfreude of evil getting its comeuppance. I think this is principally because Elsberg has managed to create a cast of characters who we can really root for. They are talented but strikingly mundane. Many heroes in literature are so high-minded and ideological that they are un-relatable; they fly so high they become a kind of ideal of human behavior rather than emblematic of real people. In Blackout, everyone, even super-hacker Manzano, seems very down-to-earth: they want hot showers, coffee, clean bathrooms, a cuddle in the dark. Their ordinariness makes them likeable.
And speaking of such menial things, this is a recurring motif in Blackout that nicely cements how critical our seemingly frivolous needs are whilst never losing sight of the immense privilege of the West. This, set alongside the larger global themes of power, political corruption, societal destabilization, government greed, capitalism, hierarchy, privilege, class and such other high-reaching themes, makes for an intriguing juxtaposition. On the one hand we get a sense of the awful scale of what the hackers have achieved with their attack. On the other, we witness how the smallest gestures or comforts can keep people going in extraordinary circumstances. The morality of Blackout is suitably grey. At times the protagonists steal and lie in order to escape or further their knowledge of the enemy, and yet we are completely with them. Blackout quietly and without pretention asks important questions: are lesser evils indeed better than greater ones or are all evils the same? This is even reflected on the global scale: is Capitalism, ultimately, the lesser of evils? As awful as it is, would not the alternative wilderness be worse? I won’t say if there is a definitive answer in Blackout, because all literature is subjective and speaks differently to different readers.
The ending of Blackout is satisfying, though I do feel like Elsberg chickened out of killing one of the more likeable characters at a key moment. It’s a classic problem writers face: they create a loved character and then a situation evolves in which the natural progress of the story will kill that character. So, the writer artificially writes around it, in an often unsatisfying way. I’m with Shakespeare in that Mercutio, the beloved friend of Romeo who dominates the first half of Romeo & Juliet, had to be killed – and is, in fact, all the greater as a character for dying. However, I also sympathise with Elsberg that sometimes it feels too cruel to put your darlings through hell and then kill them at the end of it. The fact this character survives certainly does not detract from the tale – and allows for a final image which truly encapsulates what Blackout is about.
Overall, this is a great novel, if not a mind-blowing one. Literary stylists certainly will not regard it in high esteem, but for those who want a thrilling read that sucks you into an interesting world, Blackout delivers. Though there are some moving scenes, it is certainly not emotionally devastating, but if every book were, reading would soon become tedious. The chief strength of Blackout is its earnestness, its watertight conceptualization, and its directness. Sometimes all you need is a good tale told simply.
Marc Elsberg is a former creative director in advertising. His debut thriller Blackout is a frighteningly plausible drama of a week-long international blackout caused by a hacker attack on power grids. An instant bestseller in Germany, it has sold over a million copies and has been translated worldwide. Marc Elsberg lives in Vienna, Austria.
Blackout was published by Black Swan (Penguin Random House) on 9th February 2017.
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Review by Joseph Sale
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