Quanta Technology Blog

Keeping It in the Fiction Aisle

Post author: Lee Willis

Writers of adventure and espionage fiction have always stayed a step ahead of the real world, but only a step. The best, or at least the most successful of them, seem to have a sixth sense about the public’s worry-de-jour, turning out near-prophetic novels just before their topic steps onto the front pages of the newspapers. These storytellers often get the technical details wrong, but they usually hit the bullseye of the public’s fascination and fear.

Long before submarines were practical, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo went Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft were not the only, but among the first detectives and government officials, fictional and real, to battle anarchists bent on bring down European governments. Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsythe were more than a bit prophetic in their novels about how modern terrorists, and state-sponsored terror, work at attacking democracies.

So I should not have been surprised to see Gridlock in the fiction aisle at a local bookstore three weekends ago. The novel, by former senator Byron L. Dorgan and co-author David Hagberg, tells the story of a state-sponsored attack on the U.S. power grid an attempt by a foreign power to bring down the U.S. power grid through a coordinated combination of cyber and physical attacks on utility and ISO facilities. I’m not necessarily recommending the book. It is not the most exciting spy novel I have read recently, and many of the details of power grid operation and utility procedures are wrong enough to make most of the people I expect to read this blog uncomfortable with the book’s lack of accuracy; although, Senator Dorgan certainly knows how the government works, or doesn’t, when it comes to emergencies, and probably gets all those details right. But the lack of technical details will hardly matter to most readers. The big picture painted by Dorgan and Hagberg is too real. Nations that know they cannot confront the U.S. militarily might do so through other, clandestine means, and very little is as important to America or as exposed to attack as the power grid.

My position as a partner and consultant in Quanta Technology, and the work we do with government, ISOs and utilities, has given me enough insight into actual events to know that Gridlock’s central plot theme is far too possible. Up to now, isolated events by individuals or small groups acting alone have created a rising level of concern and exposed some of the grid’s vulnerabilities in very real ways. But as far as I know, no major coordinated attempt, like Gridlock outlines, has occurred. Still, the book exists, and future books about the same subjects by even more well-known authors are likely to follow because the topic is timely, more than a little bit likely, and in the hands of a good storyteller. It would make “a rollicking good yarn.”

Beyond their entertainment value, books like Gridlock serve a good purpose. They create a public awareness of the vulnerabilities and consequences of an issue that, in turn, creates the political will needed for the government leaders to do something about it. A good friend, upon finishing Dorgan and Hagburg’s book, and knowing I had recently published my first fiction book, suggested I take a turn at writing a cyber-and-physical-attack-nearly-brings-down-the-grid novel. I would get the technical facts right, he claimed, and he is correct about that. But I’m not an accomplished enough storyteller to do justice to the story’s potential. It deserves to be told by a master of the spy/political thriller genre. Tom Clancy is gone, and Frederick Forsyth seems to have slowed down, but Ken Follett is still knocking out best sellers. I would love to see how the author of Triple, an all too realistic story of how one goes about stealing enough uranium to make several atom bombs, would tell this story. And I will definitely be first in line to buy any book that tells how Nelson DeMille’s master terrorist, Asad Kahlil, aka “the Lion,” would try to bring down the U.S. power grid and how DeMille arranges for U.S. counterespionage agents to stop him just in the nick of time. So, perhaps perversely, I’m hoping for more and better novels about cyber and physical attacks on the U.S. power grid. That way, this is one topic that will stay in the fiction aisle, and never make it into the headlines.

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