Overload, by Arthur Hailey, New York: Doubleday, 1979, 402 pp., $10.95.
Possibly not as dramatic as Hailey's famous Airport or The Moneychangers, this latest novel is much more realistic and prophetic, in a way, of things to come. The story of the "Golden State Power & Light Company (translate: Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison) versus the "Sequoia Club" (translation obvious) and two groups of radicals, one bent on public harassment and the other on underground violence to utility facilities and people, this novel weaves together a number of utility executives and their opposition in an adroit and colorful way.
The utility is being opposed in everything it seeks to do—increase rates to keep up with high fuel and operating costs, get site approval for a new 5 MW coal plant, an additional geothermal field, and a pumped storage project. Typical is the "old guard" conservatism that muzzles the star, relatively young Nimrod Goldman as vice-president of planning and principal company spokesman, into turning the other cheek when baited by the radicals in public hearings and TV appearances. Typical is the anti-utility attitude of the press and the biased news stories tending to make the utility look bad. Typical is the effort by the utility to win press friends by guided tours of its facilities, in particular the "Fincastle" (translate: Geysers) geothermal project and the "Devils Gate" pumped storage project (translate: Helms). Author Hailey did his homework on this one and has an accurate depiction of a trip through a tailgate tunnel to reach an underground power plant.
Acts of sabotage abound, from the blowing up of part of a main power plant to the destruction of substations and letter bombs to utility executives. The characters and motivations of the radicals are developed rather well by Hailey.
Goldman slips and in a public hearing takes a hard line. "Forty percent saving from conservation is unrealistic and a figure you probably pulled out of the air, the way you do most of your other accusations," he replies to his tormentor. "The best that conservation will do—and is doing already—is to help offset a part of new growth and buy us a little time. Time to let the bulk of people realize they are facing an electrical crisis which can change their lives—for the worse—in ways they never dreamed of," he adds. Later he continues, "Spare us any sanctimonious drivel about you representing the people. You don't. We represent the people—ordinary, decent normal-living people who rely on power companies like ours to light and heat their homes, and keep factories working, and do the million other things you'll cut people off from if you and your kind have their selfish, shortsighted way." He charges that the hearing and others like it are a "futile, time-wasting, costly charade," that the taxpayers "get stuck with paying millions for this crazy, counterproductive, comic-opera pseudo-system. We pretend that what we are doing here makes sense and reason when all of us on our side of the fence know damn well it doesn't."
Of course, Mr. Goldman is instantly replaced as company spokesman but in time is vindicated. Discovering the professional ring behind massive thefts of power and gas by meter shunts helps, especially when the retired Supreme Court justice hired to be the new company spokesman is implicated in those thefts.
But the real heroine in all of this is a black antiutility reporter who decides to investigate the radical groups and finds a connection between them and a $50,000 payment by the Sequoia Club that ended up paying for sabotage of the utility facilities. The final plot—to blow up a hotel housing a utility executives' convention, using bombs disguised as fire extinguishers—is foiled in the nick of time by the reporter's detective work. When the story breaks, along with massive power blackouts caused by a combination of normal shutdowns and more sabotage, the press and politicians change, but several years too late.
The story, of course, also has its lurid moments, with Goldman occupying various beds at times and ending up with the black reporter, in spite of a faithful wife of 15 years and two children. But these are down-played by Hailey, and the principal drama is the utility's fight to keep up with power demands and protect its facilities. Hailey does an excellent job on some of the sorrowful moments involving deaths or incapacitating injuries, including that of a spunky quadriplegic whose breathing-machine battery runs down in a blackout while her rescuers are trapped in an elevator.
Overload should be required reading for politicians and pseudo-environmentalists. It can happen here, and much of it already has.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Overload".