Kyle Mills’s timing could not be better. Just as gasoline prices approach $100 per barrel, with corresponding price jumps at the retail level, his latest hits the street with as plausible a doomsday scenario as you're likely to read this year.
DARKNESS FALLS involves the introduction of a designer bacteria into one of the world’s largest sources of oil. Erin Neal, a renegade environmentalist who has managed to alienate proponents of both (or all) sides of the energy issue, is reluctantly drawn into the emergency by Mark Beamon from Homeland Security. Neal is the world’s foremost expert on bioremediation, the method of using bacteria to clean up toxic oil spills. Already reeling from the death of his longtime girlfriend, Neal wants nothing to do with the world’s struggles yet cannot help but be interested in solving what appears to be an insurmountable problem. However, he is horrified to discover that the bacteria that has been introduced into the world’s oil supply is an adaptation of one of his own designs. He also slowly comes to the realization that there is simply no way to stop the spread of the contagion.
Meanwhile, the United States economy is thrown into chaos as a significant percentage of the country’s oil supply is wiped out. This involves more than high gas prices and long lines at the pump; Mills describes an amazingly realistic scenario in which society all too quickly moves to the collapse, step by frightening step. The mastermind behind this nightmare is a renegade radical environmentalist who is determined to return the earth to a more pristine condition, one that includes only a fraction of the current population. Neal, with Beamon’s help and the might and resources of the federal government, races against time to stop the final stroke of a master plan to eradicate civilization as we know it. Yet, as the book reaches its conclusion, the reader discovers that Neal’s best may not be quite enough.
What lifts DARKNESS FALLS out of the ranks of most thrillers and up to the level of a classic cautionary tale is Mills’s attention to real-world detail and plausible extrapolation of what could occur when the energy linchpin of civilization is suddenly removed. The problem of supply is not limited to oil; virtually any energy source used and relied upon over a wide area is susceptible to disruption. Mills not only describes the occurrences with frightening vividness but also brings the consequences into horrifying view. He also takes pains to incorporate important elements (the cost of alternative fuels, for example) into the mix. The result is this fall’s --- and maybe this year’s --- must-read novel.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011