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Review: Off the Grid by Dan Kolbet

It’s frightening to ponder how much we rely on the electricity delivered into our homes. Light, heat, cooking, cleaning – even the most basic elements of what we’ve come to take for granted as civilized life depend on it. It’s fair to say that if the lights suddenly went off we’d have a hard time adapting to a world of steam engines and hand cranks, whatever our lingering pastoral fantasies of what a post-apocalypse world might look like.

Dan Kolbet’s dystopian techno thriller Off the Grid offers us a picture of how a world without easy access to electricity might be. In Kolbet’s near-future setting, environmental concerns have led to fossil fuels being banned in the generation of electricity in America, which in turn has led to millions of people suddenly losing access to electricity with catastrophic results.

Electricity generation and distribution is now controlled by a single company, StuTech, run by the ruthless millionaire inventor Warren Evans. Evans has created a revolutionary technology that seems to side-step the problems brought on by fossil fuels. Kolbet evokes the amazing, and ultimately unsuccessful, experiments of Nikola Tesla at perfecting a type of broadcast electricity. For one reason or another, Tesla never got his experiment off the ground, but in Kolbet’s novel, the millionaire inventor has achieved the task and established a monopoly on power, but millions still exist without it.

Luke Kincaid blames StuTech and, ultimately, Evans for the death of his parents in a car crash shortly after the time the lights went out, and has made it his life’s mission to get revenge. He studies engineering in college as a way of gaining access to the company, and by the time the novel opens he is working at StuTech and ready to start destroying the company from the inside.

As the novel opens, however, his plans have taken a bit of a swerve. For a start, he’s fallen in love with the boss’s daughter. More problematically, his cover is so good that he’s considered such a model employee that he is recruited to take part in an industrial espionage one of StuTech’s rivals, MassEnergy, which is working hard on cracking Evans’s secret.

What follows is a fast-paced thriller that takes Luke around the world and around America, searching for the truth behind StuTech’s technology. Along the way he encounters the usual sorts of thrills and spills you’d expect in a story of this sort, and it all leads to a suitably dramatic climax.

Kolbet clearly understands the demands of the genre and writes clearly and well when he needs to, but this novel didn’t quite work for me. The elements are all in place here, and the action set pieces in particular are written with vigour and a good eye for the telling details, but some problems with the setting kept bouncing me out of this one.

Fatally, I struggled to find the basic premise convincing. The banning of fossil fuels in power generation makes sense – it’s likely something like this is going to happen sometime in the next fifty years – but I kept wondering about alternative and sustainable energy. It’s unlikely that wind, hydro and geothermal power would be able to completely replace oil and coal plants, but apart from a fleeting aside about wind turbines (we’re shown wooden turbines being sold at a market, which is a bit lame – wooden? Seriously?) they don’t get a mention. And what about nuclear? It’s not mentioned either.

I was also concerned that the ramifications of the great black-out weren’t followed through. Given that suburban and rural areas, small cities even, are without power, I would have expected far more in the way of death and destruction. I would have expected big cities heaving with refugees, widespread and grinding poverty and starvation everywhere. It didn’t seem to be quite the lawless and apocalyptic place it really needed to be to justify the hyperbole around the loss of electricity. And what about all the other uses for fossil fuels – international air travel, for example (which contributes between two and five per cent of carbon emissions globally) doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Similarly, I was never entirely clear on the nature of StuTech technology. Kolbet emphasised the miracle of broadcast power, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how the power was generated. It’s possible that the whole thing makes sense, but I didn’t feel I was given all the pieces necessary for it to fall into place.

These elements were a real problem, because without a clear statement of what’s gone wrong (or a massively over-the-top one even, given the genre) Luke’s motivations seem a bit watery. When Kolbet threw in, about halfway through, that the miracle substance A.R.C. didn’t just conduct electricity but could potentially cure spinal injuries (and, it’s implied, Luke’s niece’s respiratory illness) I got the feeling that he was trying to compensate for this lack of drama by giving Luke something else to fight for. That’s probably a mistake. I needed only one miraculous power of the secret stuff to keep me going; adding another unrelated super-power made me question the whole enterprise.

There are also a few uncertainties of character that let this novel down. Luke’s motivations get a bit confused as the action goes on: the love affair with the boss’s daughter is a good complicating event but then there’s a rapist murder, a sick niece and the miracle properties of A.R.C that muddy the waters of his revenge plan, not always to good effect. Kathryn the femme fatale is particularly uncertain, and drifts around the points of the moral compass at the whim of the plot rather than any internally consistent pole.

There’s definitely a decent thriller in here, and Kolbet clearly has it in him to write it. The problems in the background and the motivation indicate a writer still finding his feet, and hopefully his next effort will have a bit more focus in the setting and characterization. If you’re a fan of the genre you’ll find much to enjoy here, and this could be an opportunity to see a future star of the genre in his formative stages.

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