It was on a lark that Marc Elsberg started writing the story that would become Blackout. An art-school graduate who went on to work in the advertising business, Elsberg, who is Austrian, started sketching ideas for the novel—which imagines a continent-wide blackout that plunges Europe into chaos—when he went looking for a good book and couldn't find something he wanted to read.
The result, which was published in Germany in 2012, has gone on to become an international bestseller. The novel, which has sold over two million copies worldwide, will be released in the U.S. in June by Sourcebooks.
Elsberg began researching what would actually happen in the case of a massive loss of power in 2007. He was drawn to the idea, he explains, by a strong desire to expose the precariousness of the man-made systems people depend so heavily on: "I wanted to tell the story of how this world works. Or doesn't work, if the system breaks," he says.
In Blackout, masses of people are plunged into darkness, without access to most modern necessities. Far beyond dealing with mere darkened houses, Elsberg's characters are suddenly living in a world where supermarkets can't keep food from spoiling, cash machines can't dispense money, and gas stations can't pump gas. Elsberg's hero, former computer hacker Piero Manzano, takes it upon himself to find out what happened.
As Manzano goes from detective to suspect, with the authorities convinced he's responsible for the blackout, the book exposes the fragility of the infrastructure that supports our societies. "We take many modern structures—like power and water supply—for granted," Elsberg says. He notes that this phenomenon has only become more pronounced in recent decades. "It shows how much we rely on the smooth functioning of these modern systems. Thirty years ago the consequences [of a major blackout] would have been far less dramatic, because we lived in a world that was not as heavily connected."
The book also puts into stark relief one of the most pressing problems facing the world today: cyberterrorism. The blackout in the novel, it becomes clear early on, is the work of a hacker. Elsberg wants to show just how much carnage a talented cyberterrorist can unleash. "A clever terrorist no longer needs to travel," Elsberg says. "He can throw a digital bomb, sitting anywhere in the world."
The novel's prescience has been demonstrated by world events. When Elsberg was writing the book, the idea of a hacker-induced blackout was just that— an idea. It may already have become a reality recently, though, when, in late 2015, Russian hackers allegedly brought down the grid in Ukraine. And what happened in Ukraine, Elsberg notes, was no fluke: "Experts agree that we will see many more events like this one in the future, and at a larger scale."
So while Blackout is fiction, it also depicts an uncomfortable reality: the systems we rely so heavily on are very much under threat. And, as Elsberg explains, our deepest concerns about cybercrime are often misplaced. While many of us fret over identity theft or cyberbullying, the greatest risks are posed by more-widespread attacks. "The real threat," Elsberg explains, "looms on the large-scale level—bringing down whole societies as I show in Blackout. Or, possibly, meddling with elections."
Blackout has proven so relevant that Elsberg has become a mainstay in some unexpected circles. "I continue to be invited to speak to companies and politicians about these topics," he says, adding that it's a position that is "rather unusual for an author of thrillers.