When I was much younger, one of my favorite authors was Tom Clancy. It wasn’t necessarily that Clancy was the best or tightest author; no, what I think I enjoyed was the way Clancy told stories, giving you a sense of the global perspective of events, letting them play out through different lenses, and doing enough research to give all of it a plausible, realistic feel. The result managed to always be gripping, giving even simple stories an epic, outsized feeling, and more than that, making them feel plausible and compelling (to teenage me), as though “this could all happen.”
I thought of Clancy a lot during the novel Blackout, a runaway bestseller in its nature Germany making its way to American bookshelves after several years. Like Clancy, author Marc Elsberg tells his story through a large cast of characters, ranging in nationality and status, and diving in and out of governmental organizations, intelligence groups, and computer geeks both legal and less-than-legal. More than that, like Clancy, Elsberg has done his research, telling not only the story of a covert terrorist attack that kills power across Europe, but diving into power infrastructure, IT security, government alliances, and more to show both the potential and the danger of such an attack. Indeed, it’s not just the original blackout that causes problems; it’s the civil unrest, the difficulties in getting started again, the lasting damages done to a society that relies on electricity, and so forth. And Elsberg’s research gives it all a queasily realistic feel that’s hard to shake off.
So, like Clancy, Elsberg has a knack for big picture storytelling, for research, and for carrying the novel through sheer momentum and kinetic energy. But also like Clancy, Elsberg struggles bringing his characters to life. That’s not to say that anyone here is a bad character; rather, everyone is a bit archetypal, fulfilling their function, and existing nicely within the confines of the plot. But much beyond that, the characters never really live and breathe. We’re invested in them as far as this story gets us, and that’s about all. Whether the villains of the novel and their overwrought philosophical arguments or the greedy executives, by and large, the cast of Blackout functions about like they do in any disaster movie – to be the human face of all of this. That’s not necessarily something that destroys the book, but it does keep it from ever really gripping you the way you would hope. (It also can get to be confusing keeping people straight at times, given that so many of them are similar.)
What’s more, Elsberg works best when he’s got some grounding and some research. His material about the blackout, the attack, and the rebuilding? Fantastic. The rioting, the civil unrest, the random arrests that hold back our heroes? Less so. Again, there’s never anything incredibly egregious or awful. But it can get to be a bit much at times, and the human elements never ground it quite well enough to make it all work.
For all of that, Blackout is still a solid read, and one that scratched that same itch for me that Clancy books did in my youth. It’s a gripping, propulsive narrative, one anchored in enough research and detail to come to life and feel all too plausible. And if the plot gets a little silly sometimes, well, that’s fine; it’s a pulp novel, and that’s allowable, as long as it can keep you reading. And this one definitely did.