“When the lights go out one night, no one panics. Not yet. The lights always come back on soon, don’t they? Surely it’s a glitch, a storm, a malfunction. But something seems strange about this night. Across Europe, controllers watch in disbelief as electrical grids collapse. There is no power, anywhere.
A former hacker and activist, Piero investigates a possible cause of the disaster. The authorities don’t believe him, and he soon becomes a prime suspect himself. With the United States now also at risk, Piero goes on the run with Lauren Shannon, a young American CNN reporter based in Paris, desperate to uncover who is behind the attacks. After all, the power doesn’t just keep the lights on―it keeps us alive.”
My Thoughts: Blackout is supposed to be a timely, prescient thriller that shows a potential future disaster scenario. After all, there has long been a general belief that power grids are extremely vulnerable to hackers and/or terrorist threats. Marc Elsberg simply takes this belief and brings it to life in his Dan Brown-esque story of hackers gone wild.
Unfortunately, there is nothing sexy or intriguing about the power grids across Europe. Instead, they are so complicated that Herr Elsberg has to devote a lot of story time to explain how the grids work in order to explain how the hackers were able to compromise them thus highlighting the brilliance of their plan. The sad part is there is no way to make that large swatch of the novel interesting; it reads like a science textbook, and there is nothing suspenseful about a textbook. While informative – you do walk away from the novel with a greater understanding of how countries generate electricity and how it gets to your house or business – it does not do much to create any tension.
There is also an issue with the large cast of characters, some of whom never even meet. We see the disaster through a German minster’s eyes, through Piero’s eyes, through Lauren’s eyes, through the hackers’ eyes, through various electrical plant workers and regular citizens. The characters jumble together so much that it becomes difficult to remember who is working for the EU, who is working for the local government, and who is a company man. There are simply too many narrators and too little connection between them.
To make matters even worse, readers must accept that Piero is the only person in all of Europe who is capable of uncovering the piece of code that creates havoc in the power grids. They must also accept that he is also the only person who can discover not only the persons of interest but also the overarching goal the POIs hope to obtain as well as their secret communiques telegraphing instructions to each other. Not only that, but in order to discover all of this, he must be involved in a high-speed chase, have others shoot at him, and have the good guys consider him to be the perpetrator. It is all a bit too far-fetched.
I suspect that my main issues with Blackout are due more to the translation than to Herr Elsberg’s original story. The story is tedious in part because of the simplistic syntax used throughout the novel. There is no depth to the sentences, and the word choices are elementary at best. I would almost like to read this in its original German to determine if my hunch is correct; the sentence structure is just too simple for a technological thriller.
Of course, any re-read would indicate a level of interest on my part, and I was not into the story or the characters enough to warrant that. There is no character development. There is no plot development, no backstory, no use of nuanced language. Blackout is nothing but a thriller at its most basic. The comparison to Dan Brown is apt; just switch Piero for Robert Langdon, Lauren for Sophie, the hackers for the Illuminati and the grid disruption for the Holy Grail. The story is plays out in very similar fashion, except one is much more technical and less thrilling.