Black Swan | 2017 (9 February) (originally published in Germany in 2012) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Piero Manzano is driving through Milan when, in an instant, vehicle after vehicle, including Manzano’s own, slams into one another. It is a winter’s night and the dark has suddenly turned blacker. Every light has flickered out, including the traffic lights. The result is chaos. And as the lights and power go off in waves across Europe, a normal day becomes Day 0. Just how long will it take before a society with no power at all loses itself?
As the hours and days pass, and feelings of comraderie brought about by a shared hardship deteriorate into a far more ugly mood, the governments, secret agencies and power companies of Europe and beyond work towards a solution. Discovering the cause is just as difficult a task. Piero Monzano is a useful man. A well-known hacker, he has identified a trail of clues along the power networks and he is the first to uncover the truth behind a terrorist attack on the grandest and most ambitious of scales. It will take all of Monzano’s skill to trace the clues to their source, which is no easy matter when he becomes prime suspect.
Blackout follows these dark events day by day, moving every few pages from one group of people to another, from one end of Europe to the other, focusing on Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It tells of a race between terrorists and power companies to take control of the network. Monzano, a journalist called Shannon, and a few others link these stages together as they cross the continent in the most horrendous conditions.
This is a novel that tells two stories – the hunt to uncover the truth behind the blackout and to get the power back on line, and then the appalling horror story of what happens day after day to towns, cities, rural communities, society and people when power is gone. No electricity means no lights, no power, no running water, no sanitation, next to no communication or internet, no fuel, no healthcare, no frozen food and no coollants for nuclear power stations. And that’s not even all of it. But each of these things contributes to thousands and thousands of tragedies, some small and some vast. And we are shown some of this and it is at times painful to read.
Blackout is a novel to make you think about how vulnerable we are and how some people are even more at risk. There are people in these pages who have to make the most appalling decisions and all because something that most of take for granted is gone. For me, the terrorist angle here was almost incidental to the very realistically portrayed human story of society, and the individuals and families within it, facing apocalypse. The tone for much of the novel is almost dispassionate, particularly when focusing on the investigation and the technicalities of the blackout, but there are glimpses of true feeling. I think I would have liked more of that but what there is is powerfully done. With the exception of investigator Bollard, the main characters felt to me rather cold and aloof, but we meet other people along the way who play relatively minor roles and yet their personal stories strike deep.
I read this novel (and wrote this review) at a time when I felt worried for the world, during the American election and straight afterwards. But even without that background atmosphere, Blackout is a meticulously detailed and exact depiction of what could believably happen if the lights were to go out. Marc Elsberg does this very well and the result is a chilling, disturbing and frightening thriller, and the pages fly through the fingers.