Blackout: A Coming Dystopia?

Dystopian novels are not my normal literary cup of tea (1984 excepted). But I just finished reading Marc Elsberg’s Blackout, originally published in Germany in 2012 and translated into English this year. It’s a bone-chilling thriller about an international Luddite group attempting to destroy modern civilization by bringing down first the European and then the U.S. electric grid.

With the devastation created by storms in the U.S. southwest and in South Asia in today’s  background, Blackout carries the message that a man-made attack on electric service poses far greater consequences than weather phenomena. Elsberg’s research into the effects of grid collapse, and his understanding of the vulnerabilities of the grid, are broad and deep. He even understands the fundamental importance of SCADA systems.

The book is fast-paced (and a journalist is one of the heroes) as the cyber terrorists spread havoc across Western Europe. The book sold 2 million copies in Germany, attested to its arresting narrative.

A grid collapse, a character in the book notes, has widespread impacts. “As a result of the blackout, the entire manufacturing and delivery chain is at a standstill,” says the character. “Take one of our staple foods: milk. The majority of our supplies come from industrial operations, which rely on automated machines, not only for milking the thousands of cows they hold, but also for heating and ventilation of the cowsheds where the herds are kept for supplying feed. The larger firms have backup power systems that will hold up as long as they have diesel – a few days in most cases. Some have their own autonomous power supply, not that it will be much use to them. Because milk tankers milk tankers cannot collect when they have no diesel.”

Public water supplies fail. Traffic control ceases. Airport shut down. And so it goes.

The villains plan for a two-week total outage to bring the EU to its knees, as the cyber-attack spreads to the U.S. and Japan. Nuclear plants fail widely, some suffering severe damage by loss of the ability to circulate cooling water.

Spoiler: the world survives (but at enormous cost). The novel is worth reading, both as a thriller and a reminder of the centrality of electricity to the world as we now know it.


Marc Elsberg, Blackout, Sourcebook, Inc., Naperville, Ill., 2017