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We have become so reliant on electricity that the word blackout in itself conjures up images of panic, uncertainty and fear. After all, what is life without internet, telly and a whole slew of gadgets and gizmos we’re so dependent on. Electricity has become such an indispensable element of modern life that most civilized societies can’t fathom functioning without it. But what happens when you’re not offered a choice?

In Blackout, Marc Elsberg contemplates this question. A sudden Europe-wide power outage cripples public life, with an entire continent been forced into an impasse. Who is behind this disruption and what are their reasons?

This conspiracy thriller relies on multiple narrative threads that eventually come together in an action-packed finale. An Italian hacker, Piero Manzano, discovers that smart meters were tampered with before the blackout, which signals sinister motives and eliminates technical fault as the reason behind the failure. Piero and Shannon, a journalist, soon find themselves inadvertently in the eye of the storm as they race against time to stop the hackers before it’s too late.

The energy failure sets off a domino effect – heating goes missing in the brutal European winter, water is increasingly scarce and fuel becomes short in supply. Government officials conduct an emergency meeting with heads of energy development bodies but realize that everyone is equally clueless. They try to suppress panic by concealing the enormity of the situation, and because of the lack of internet, it takes everyone a while to catch up with the true state of affairs. In this vein, Blackout poses pertinent questions about freedom of press vs. maintaining law and order.

The plot and narrative style reminded me a lot of Dan Brown’s books, which feature brief chapters focused on different characters in parallel story arcs. Here you get similar large-scale action as the scope of the story spreads out with more countries being plunged into the darkness because of interconnected power grids. Soon we’re dealing with a massive, intercontinental blackout, which implies a huge security risk.

I did have some minor quibbles with the book, especially about character development. At no point did I feel connected to the protagonist or any of the minor characters. The dialogue also felt stilted and a bit too technical at times. There was no real element of suspense to pique my curiosity about the fate of the two main characters, even though it’s apparent that the stakes are quite high.

The threats projected in this thriller are very real – one of the biggest drawbacks of today’s technology-enabled interconnected world is how vulnerable that makes it to anyone with malicious designs and little more than rudimentary knowledge of the internet.

When we think of blackouts, our concerns usually circle around uncharged cellphones, lack of Wi-Fi and such trifles. Blackout examines the serious spillover effects of such a failure – the deterioration of health and hygiene amenities and malfunctioning of nuclear reactors as a result of shortage of fuel. The latter causes a radiation hazard that in turn makes even more people susceptible to health issues. Elsberg shrewdly depicts this vicious cycle; how a simple tampering of a meter sets off a chain reaction with grave repercussions.

Blackout has all the ingredients of a classic Dan Brown novel, minus the liberal dose of historical trivia. This is an intelligently written, high-concept thriller which addresses crucial, contemporary concerns about power, independence and cyber security.

★★★★

Blackout was published in paperback by Black Swan on 9 February 2016 

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