by James W. Hall
2013, Minotaur Books
I came upon Going Dark by James Hall randomly on a trip to the library. Perhaps it was blocking another book I went to reach for, but for some reason, I picked it up and opened it. The blurb on the inside of the jacket began by explaining what the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is and immediately after that, I knew I was going to have to read the book. After all, what anarchist could turn it down the opportunity to read a thriller about the ELF taking out a nuclear power plant?
Almost three-hundred pages later, I can safely say that while Going Dark was interesting in terms of how it portrayed the Earth Liberation Front (more on that later in the review), it really is not worth reading. It’s a mystery/thriller, part of a series written by author James W. Hall featuring the South Florida-based private investigator Thorn. Thorn is your typical male detective type, he doesn’t say a lot and generally keeps to himself as a cynical loner on the outside of society with few personal relationships. He has a strong independent streak and a kind of knee-jerk skepticism of government and society, although much of his personality follows the more negative trends of masculine stoicism. I had never read any of the other Thorn novels and Going Dark didn’t really build on the previous books, aside from the fact that Thorn seemed to be in a bit more of a funk than usual because in the last book he found out that he had a son named Flynn whose existence he didn’t learn about until last year (his son is now in his twenties).
In what was supposed to be a “non-violent” raid, there are several shoot outs, multiple casualties, and members of the group turn on each other.
The plot is relatively improbable, but it’s worth describing in detail to understand and examine how the ELF is portrayed in the book. It isn’t really complex, but there are a lot of different threads going on at once. The main character, Thorn, becomes involved in an ELF cell after stumbling upon the group while trying to track down his son, Flynn. When he comes upon the cell, they give him the option of joining or being killed, and he decides to join up with the motley crew in part out of a bit of sympathy, but primarily out of concern for his son’s well-being. He learns the details of the group’s plan to target the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in south Florida and witnesses the unpredictability with those participating (lack of respect for each other, posturing, power plays, people being prone to violence, etc). While skeptical of their plan and methods, he goes along with it primarily because he’s concerned about his son, although he has some sympathy for their views.
At the same time, a parallel plot covers an FBI investigation into the ELF cell. There are various informants being used (including within the ELF cell itself), investigators from a variety of government and private companies, and a lot of your usual detective novel stuff. The lead FBI investigator Frank Sheffield is a character that is quite similar to Thorn, a distant loner who pours over a variety of clues because something “just isn’t right.” Eventually he realizes that one of the government agents is helping with the investigation is working with the Earth Liberation Front as part of a plan to advance her career.
The book ends with an attack on Turkey Point by the ELF during a drill to test the plant’s security preparedness. In what was supposed to be a “non-violent” raid, there are several shoot outs, multiple casualties, and members of the group turn on each other. While a planned bombing destroys a cooling tower, one of the ELF members goes off on their own and attempts to set a bomb in the cooling pools which would result in the release of deadly nuclear radiation. Thorn — exercising his role as the reluctant hero — is able to stop it. Even after all of the double-crossings and the death of his child’s mother, Thorn’s son Flynn remains committed to the ELF and leave to join another cell at the end of the book. Despite his misgivings about what happened, the ELF, and Flynn’s decision, Thorn refuses to cooperate with the FBI and the book closes with him wondering where his son has gone.
The plot is relatively unlikely, both in terms of what the Earth Liberation Front would actually do based on its history and just in terms of overall believability. It’s hard to believe that a handful of people would try to shut down a nuclear power plant and even more unlikely that there would be multiple layers of government and private security complicity. The unlikelihood of the plot doesn’t make for an engaging read and there is enough questionable content — racial stereotypes, manipulative sex, predictable masculine behavior, sexism, offensive language — that makes it hard to get through. Similarly, the characters aren’t well-developed and as a reader, it’s hard to get a strong sense of who they are. Overall, there just isn’t a lot of depth in the book.
As an anarchist, my primary reason for reading Going Dark was to check out its portrayal of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). While not explicitly anarchist, the Earth Liberation Front exists within the broad anarchist space and there has been crossover, in terms of tactics, participation, and ideology. In recent years, a number of fiction works have portrayed either the group or fictional groups that act in a similar manner (for example, The Oregon Experiment and the film Night Moves). However, portrayals of the ELF haven’t always been the most accurate — those with even minimal knowledge of the group based on court transcripts, writings by the group, or participation in the anarchist space — usually can identify more than a few errors in the portrayals.
Unfortunately, James Hall’s Going Dark continues this, albeit taking the distortions to a whole new level that tends to be more in line with government claims than reality. The errors begin on the first page, which opens with the sentence “By every means necessary we will bring this and every other empire down! Mutiny and sabotage in defense of Mother Earth!” The sentence is labeled an “Earth First! credo,” but as best I could find, it is two lines taken out of an article that appeared in the Earth First! Journal back in 2003. It was just one of many articles that have appeared in the Journal — a discussion forum for the radical environmental movement — that publishes a range of often contradictory views but few manifestos issued on behalf of Earth First! as a whole. It seems that the only people who adopted the sentences in question as a “credo” are the various conservative websites such as ActivistFacts.com (run by a pro-business group called the Center for Consumer Freedom) where the statement regularly appears. Earth First! isn’t really mentioned elsewhere in Going Dark, aside from a brief mention where the ELF is described as “an arm of Earth First!” (52). Oddly enough, the main FBI agent in the case, Frank Sheffield, is critical of the “lumping together” of Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and the ELF at the behest of “business leaders” who “bullied” the FBI into making the ELF the agency’s “number one domestic terrorist threat,” but the author essentially makes the same mistake in his portrayals of the ELF.
Despite these errors, Hall does get some things right, for example describing the group, he writes:
“They favored primitive explosive devices to burn down ritzy housing developments built on sensitive lands, and SUV dealerships that specialized in gas hogs. They staged attacks on animal-testing labs, spiking ancient redwoods to shut down logging operations.
All loose-knit, no central command. A mishmash of beliefs. Animal liberators, anticapitalists, green anarchists, deep ecologists, ecofeminists. The entire array of next-generation revolutionaries. Everyone doing his or her thing. Save the earth, fuck the exploiters, punish the land developers, stop urban sprawl.”
While it may not be the most nuanced description, it works for a fiction book. Similarly, the members of the cell whose politics are elaborated on joined out of frustration with the mainstream environmental movement, with one even being recruited at a Sierra Club meeting (85). However, the ELF in Going Dark behaves more like a gang than an actual ELF cell. The author never presents the ELF’s three guidelines for actions, nor does he seem aware of them. The third guideline — “to take all necessary precautions against harming life” — is particularly worth noting, as the ELF members in the book are quite violent and don’t have much regard for life. While there is talk of non-violence throughout the book and the whole plan is described as a “peaceful raid,” the portrayal is more in line with that of terrorists than a realistic model of the ELF (237). The participants don’t seem to know each other well, have basic disagreements with each other, and volatile personalities that result in extremely bad power plays. There is no discussion of security culture and the group takes no real security-related precautions. The most striking example of this is that even after Flynn admits to talking with the FBI, he is allowed to remain in the group (173). In another case, a friend of Thorn’s who stumbles onto the the group and the plot is simply asked to leave and not talk about what he has seen (205).
The ELF in Going Dark behaves more like a gang than an actual ELF cell. The author never presents the ELF’s three guidelines for actions, nor does he seem aware of them. The third guideline — “to take all necessary precautions against harming life” — is particularly worth noting, as the ELF members in the book are quite violent and don’t have much regard for life.
To a large degree, the Earth Liberation Front is portrayed as terrorists, one step removed from groups such as Al Qaeda (85). There’s a strong sense throughout the book that the activists are simply misled into going along with the whims of more dangerous criminals, in this case the two ex-military members, one of whom eventually acts against the plan and tries to place a bomb to release nuclear radiation. They are described as “well-intentioned,” but clearly shown that their actions are misdirected. Going Dark alternates between showing the ELF as a simple misguided group of activists committing small crimes or a gang of thugs bent on destruction. For example, the plan — which involves the release of crocodiles in the control room in the nuclear power plant — is described as something that is hatched by “a gang of twenty-year-old ringleaders all stoned and giddy” out in a cabin in the woods (251). Yet at other times, such as when members of the group engage in violence against others, kill security guards, and make gruesome threats, the reader is led to believe that the ELF is inherently violent. In the end, the action is portrayed as trivial — because of the aforementioned crocodiles the ELF’s coverage in the media is one of “a fraternity prank gone terribly wrong,” and because the cooling tower is being rebuilt and the power is on again, the action is ultimately not effective.
It’s these portrayals — almost all negative — that were really the only interesting aspect of this novel for me. I’m always curious about how anarchist ideas appear in popular entertainment, and Going Dark is a prime example of how these portrayals tend to rehash the same worn out cliches that have appeared in newspapers and entertainment media for well over 100 years now. James W. Hall presents a vision of the Earth Liberation Front that is more grounded in government characterizations and propaganda than reality, resulting in what is a very improbable plot involving murder, an attempted terrorist attack, and the development of a nefarious seeming terrorist underground.