Book Review: Overload, by Arthur Hailey

Overload by Arthur Hailey


Heat! Heat in stifling blanket layers. Heat that enveloped all of California from the arid Mexican border in the south to majestic Klamath Forest, elbowing northward into Oregon. Heat, oppressive and enervating…Throughout cities and suburbs, in factories, offices, stores and homes, six million electric air-conditioners hummed.  On thousands of farms in the fertile Central Valley–the richest agricultural complex in the world–armies of electric pumps gulped water from deep wells, directing it to thirsty cattle and parched crops…California had known other heat waves and survived their consequences.  But in none had the demands for electrical power been so great.

“That’s it, then,” the chief electric dispatcher said unnecessarily.  “There goes the last of our spinning reserve.”

I was reminded of this book by the current electrical crisis in California.  It is quite likely the only novel ever written in which an electrical power utility and its executives and employees are the good guys of the story.

The protagonist, Nim Goldman, is VP of Planning for Golden State Power & Light, which in the book is the predominant electrical supplier in California.  The company is wrestling with the problems of accommodating growing electrical demand while facing more and more restrictions from regulators.  To which difficulties are added the impact of an unprecedented heat wave and the threat of terrorist attacks.

GSP&L’s opponents fall into three overlapping circles.  First, there is a mainstream and rather staid environmental organization called the Sequoia club.  Then, there is an activist organization called Power and Light for People. run by an Australian named Davy Birdsong, which wants to replace for-profit utilities with some sort of government entity or collective.  Finally, there is a small but deadly terrorist group which seeks maximum social disruption and sees an attack of GSP&L as the best way to achieve that goal.

The book, published in 1979, is kind of a period piece…the fuels in use are coal and oil, no mention of solar or wind; while there is concern about pollution–especially from coal–no one is talking about climate change; and while there are complaints about high electricity bills and corporate greed, no one is suggesting that Americans be weaned from most of their electricity use and forced to shut down their air conditioners. The story is well-told, although it is kind of a pot-boiler..for one thing, Nim has so much sex, and some of it under such unusual circumstances, that the actual effect is (unintentionally, I’m sure) comic. The technologies of power generation and distribution are portrayed reasonably accurately within the limitations of a popular novel. The fundamental issue of matching supply and demand continuously, in real time, comes across clearly.  One character, Karen Sloan, is a quadriplegic whose very life depends upon electricity–the battery both for her assisted-breathing device and for her powered wheelchair must be periodically recharged, or else…a neat way of illustrating what a serious matter the continuity of electrical service actually is.

Overload would make a great movie, but probably could not be made in the current environment without some switching-around of good guys and villains.



14 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Overload</em>, by Arthur Hailey”

  1. Another book about the taken-for-granted electric power supply industry is “Rad Decision” by James Aach. It is a techno-thriller about an attempt to bring down a nuclear power plant, written by an author with long experience of the industry. Of necessity, the book explains (in a non-didactic way) much about the process of keeping a nuclear power plant on-line and safe.

    Thrilling and educational! Worth a read.

  2. It would be a good thing if someone would do a film…either fictionalized or a really well-done documentary…which shows how difficult it is to run a power grid and keep supply and demand balanced Most people aren’t understanding that a megawatt-hour generated at 11am and a megawatt-hour needed at 9pm aren’t substitutable, much less a megawatt-hour needed 6 months later when snow is on the ground and the wind is still. This is why extravagant claims about ‘renewables’ are so salable.

    Or maybe a good computer game in which the player takes the roll of the system dispatcher: try to avoid blackouts while not going broke.

    Waertsila had, and probably still has, a power dispatch simulator for professional use…I think they use it as part of the sales process for their backup internal combustion engines…but it doesn’t seem to be available for customer download anymore.

  3. Overload might have been the first sign of Arthur Hailey being mugged by reality. Contrast his earlier Wheels, which presents a more sympathetic view of the downtrodden masses of Detroit.

    The plot of all of the Hailey techno-novels is always the same, protagonist deals with all sorts of challenges in the office and at home while getting enough action to exhaust a sailor on shore leave.

    But the no-caps “power and light for people” run by the semi-respectable environmentalists is clearly a nod toward the all too real “energy and gas for people” that in those days inverted the initials of Pacific Gas & Electric, and the Sequoia Club surely caught the radical chic that was rampant in that era’s Sierra Club.

    It was supposed to be fiction, though. Delayed maintenance and rolling blackouts, emergency measures, not business as usual in the realm of Lord Newsome.

  4. At least in CA people aren’t freezing to death due to the power grid going down. It’s not going to be pretty in a few years when New England power goes out in the middle of winter…

  5. It’s not going to be pretty in a few years when New England power goes out in the middle of winter…

    The Australian state of Victoria is running a preview under the guidance of a Labor government. I keep track a bit through Catallaxy Files.

  6. There was one other book where the keepers of power were good guys: “Lucifer’s Hammer.” I’m thinking of the guardians of the nuclear power plant around which a most fortunate dike had been built so that no one had to see what it was they needed to keep civilization going.

    I remember reading “Overload” although I had forgotten the hero having sex right and left, up and down, in season and out. It was probably when I read “Jaws” that I formed my theory that Congress had passed a law mandating ridiculous sex scenes in every modern novel. “Overload” surely bore that out with the hero’s interlude with the quadriplegic girl. Goodness gracious, he was quite the Energizer Bunny.

    “Hotel” and “Airport” were good but then it got to be too much of a formula.

  7. ” if someone would do a film…either fictionalized or a really well-done documentary…which shows how difficult it is to run a power grid and keep supply and demand balanced ”

    There was a PBS documentary show about supply and demand and instant trading and brokerage of power and how most of the industry was literally pushing little bits of paper around while leaning on old-style telephone handsets on their shoulders while the new brilliant techno-genius traders with PCs and cellphones were saving California from brown-outs AND avoiding having to build new power plants because their marketing and trading ingenuity and better data processing matched supply and demand better without so much waste or need for reserves.

    The techno-genius people in the PBS _FRONTLINE_ documentary worked for a company called “Enron”…

    As Paul Newman said to Sally Field, “All of it was accurate, and none of it was true.”

    +Lucifer’s Hammer_ WOULD make a hell of an Amazon-Prime streaming video series. Not so much a two or three hour movie. Too much going on.

  8. a little like paul erdman, who was the harold robbins of the economic set, the last days of america, written before the shah collapsed in 1975, illustrated the iranian/saudi nuclear standoff, the tightrope of government financing then,

  9. Anonymous: “The techno-genius people in the PBS _FRONTLINE_ documentary worked for a company called “Enron”…”

    That was when I lost all respect for Ivy League graduates — and respect for most attorneys. I heard a talk given by one of the well-credentialed California lawyers who had been responsible for the “deregulation” which led to California’s power problems. She was smooth, articulate, intelligent — but had no understanding that the real world is a dynamic place; reality changes faster than regulations.

    “Deregulation” was not an accurate description. At a time when there was excess power generation capacity in the Western US (mainly because of good seasons for hydro-electricity), the lawyers wrote regulations which allowed California utilities to reduce their costs for power by purchasing it competitively from mostly out-of-state generators (subject to lots of rules), but kept retail prices fully regulated. This worked fine as long as excess power generation kept the wholesale price for electricity below the regulated retail price.

    The smart lawyers apparently never considered the possibility that the power generation side of the equation might change at some point in the future– plant shut downs, dry seasons reducing hydro-power. etc. When the wholesale price of electricity later rose above the regulated retail price, California utilities were forced to operate at a loss — a non-sustainable situation.

    Meanwhile, Enron’s street-smart traders took advantage of all the complex rules the Ivy League lawyers had written, which (for example) allowed Enron quite legally to charge for electric power that could not be delivered due to transmission line limitations.

    The whole experience should have been a lesson — but California’s politicians and regulators do not seem to have learned it.

  10. In the 60’s the demand in Colorado was growing by 8.5% a year which my father informed me was the equivalent of building another system every 8 years. He knew because he was building power plants and and transmission line like crazy. I looked it up and the present rate of growth is a little less than 1%. That doesn’t sound too bad until you find out that in 2016, we generated four times as much power as in 1965 so in absolute terms we should be building at least half as much as we were then. Of course, almost all the capacity built in 1965 was base load and none was “renewable”.

    California might be out in front in terms of a brittle grid but not by far. Texas missed rolling blackouts last year by a few megawatts. Most places are no more than an unplanned equipment outage at the wrong time from a major blackout.

  11. Wow! I’ve read both “Overload” and “Lucifer’s Hammer.”. IIRC, Nim’s full name is “Nimrod,” which a female character (Karen, maybe?) points out means “Hunter” in Hebrew and certainly fits him as a “hunter of women.”

    Another good book is “Storm,” by George R. Stewart. Many think this is the first book where the environment is the main character. Human characters, such as a telephone lineman, are shown coping with the effects of a major storm and trying to keep civilization running. “Storm” introduced the idea of naming storms, in this case “Maria.”. (As in “They call the wind Mariah.”)

    Stewart also wrote “Earth Abides,” where population (and civilization) collapses due to a pandemic.

  12. ““Storm” introduced the idea of naming storms, in this case “Maria.”. (As in “They call the wind Mariah.””

    Didn’t know that…thought that had been done since time immemorial.

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