Book Review: Fury of the Fifth Angel

Washington, D.C., February 2, 2014 – Imagine, a techno-thriller for power geeks and grid gurus? Well, that’s just what the father-son team of Pat and Chris Hoffman have delivered in their book “Fury of the Fifth Angel.”

When I started reading the book, within the first five pages I was reminded of the fine sci-fi novels of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven from the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, I thought of “Lucifer’s Hammer,” the 1977 novel premised on what happens to the Earth when it is hit by a comet. Low and behold, on page 43 of “Fury” is a direct reference to that classic.

The premise of “Fury” is that our planet narrowly avoids a nasty civilization-ending (and perhaps homo sapiens ending) comet collision, but a trailing band of space debris causes a number of large meteorites to smack into the Earth. The results are, predictably, terrifying. In particular, the Hoffmans, both of whom are veteran grid controllers, lay out the impact of the meteorite impacts (combined with a top-of-the-scale solar storm) on the U.S. power grid and the consequent devastating effects. It’s not a pretty picture, as this magazine has spelled out in earlier articles about the potential impact of a major solar storm.

The book is a page-turner. It’s not dry techno-babble about induced currents and interconnected grids (although that’s all there), but a lot of gripping human stories of folks who try to escape the devastation, including tsunami effects that make Fukushima look like a water park, some who don’t, and a largely feckless and sometimes venial White House trying to manage the impending devastation as best it can as well as its ruinous political effects. There’s even a love story involving a grid controller from NYISO and an astronomy technician in Colorado. Good stuff.

“Fury” has all any red-blooded reader of this kind of book wants: violence, sex, drugs, religion, and politics. It also has descriptions and insights into the operation of the U.S transmission system, including what turns out to be benefits of a grid that is not fully interconnected. The Hoffmans are also scornful of the restructuring of the electricity system in the U.S. over the past 20 years, which they argue has elevated economics over reliability.

Both Hoffmans – Albert James “Pat” Hoffman and his son Chris Hoffman – have worked in the electricity transmission business for years and visited many companies and organizations involved. Pat is retired and Chris is still on the job. On the details of the places they describe that I know well and the institutions they discuss that I have covered for years, they are spot on. These guys know their subject.

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There is more. While there is plenty for electricity mavens to appreciate in this book, it’s not just for the techno crowd. This is a fine read even if you don’t know the difference between NYISO and ISO-NE or the fact that the U.S. has three, unconnected grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. There’s plenty of action outside the inside baseball of power transmission and distribution.

Without giving away the story, let me note that the book ends in considerable ambiguity. The authors say they are working on a sequel. I hope they are able to complete it. I look forward to reading it and reviewing it here.

Pat and Chris Hoffman, Fury of the Fifth Angel, Dog Ear Publishing, 2013. Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The book also has a web site: www.furyofthefifthangel.com.