Fiction is a poor vehicle for propaganda. One need not agree with Sherwood Anderson that propaganda is bent and broken writing to recognize that it is a severely limited genre that does not mix well with other forms of literature -- least of all the novel. Fiction derives its vitality from characterization, development and resolution. Propoganda depends for its effectiveness on stridency, repetition and unwavering certainty in the rightness of its cause. It cannot tolerate the subtlety and imagination that good fiction demands.
"Overload" is an excellent example of this contradiction, and it can stand next to Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel about fascism in America "It Can't Happen Here," as an example of unconvincing propaganda and awful fiction. Hailey's premise is that modern America's sensitivity to concerns of safety and environmental protection is overwrought and is seriously, perhaps irreparably, restricting electic utilities from developing resources necessary to supply future demands for energy. The proposition itself is not unreasonable, and is espoused by articulate spokesmen. Utilities, like oil companies, are resorting to apid advertising to publicize their views, and those views cannot be dismissed out of hand.
But Hailey is trying to write a novel about it, and that makes all the difference. The central event of "Overload" is a public hearing to determine whether California should license the construction of an electric power plant in the desert. This affords Hailey an all too inviting opportunity to have witnesses from the fictional Golden State Power and Light take the stand to warn of the dire consequences to society if the plant is not built, and they do so, at lenght.
But the propagandist in Hailey doesn't allow the opposition much credibility, so he portrays them as fools or lunatics. The chief spokesman for the environmentalists at the hearing is a buffoon of a consumer activist whose ridiculous, bullying demagoguery no reader could possibly take seriously, yet we are to believe from Hailey that he has the Public Utilities Commission and the press (not to memtion the public) hopelessly entranced. Most of the electric utility executives are concerned, sincere and good-hearted men and women, a characterization one could accept if only it did not stad in such ludicrous contrast to the opposition.
Meanwhile, Golden State Power Light's existing power plants are being sabotaged by a Yale-educated, bomb-throwing Marxist terrorist. Lest there still be any doubt as to whose side Hailey is on, the terriorist is secretly financed by the consumer activist, who gets his money from the "Sequoia Club." The press, naturally, is a collection of gullible ninnies, little more than conduits who publish as "news" whatever claptrap the consumer activist is handing out at the moment.
Hailey portrays all these one-dimensional characters in utter seriousness without a hint of satire. The whole affair very quickly becomes tiresome, annoying and dull. Hailey's apparent concession to the demands of fiction is to follw Nimrod Goldman, a utility executive, from bed to bed, including dalliances with nearly every woman in the book except his wife. But these episodes neither titillate nor absorb; instead, they are dunked in Hailey's own brand of pathos. A beautiful quadriplegic dies when a blackout cuts off the power supply for her life support system; the widow of Goldman's best friend gets religion. Goldman's wife, meanwhile, is secretly and heroically struggling against cancer while he is out exploring new bedrooms. Far from redeeming the story, these diversions only add to its sodden weight.
Perhaps no good novel can be written about the conflict between energy and the environment. That conflict may simply not be reducible to human scale, not because it is too awesome but because it is too impersonal. I would be happy to be proven wrong. But whatever the possibilities, "Over-load" does not take even the first step in the right direction. "The Fourth of July War" is quite a different book but not more successful. Allan Topol imagines a scenarios where the Secretary of Energy, acting in cahoots with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, launches a successful military raid that captures the Saudi Arabian oil fields to end America's energy shortage. Unaware of the endeavor until it is presented to him endeavor until it is presented to him as a fait accompli , the president capitalizes on the acclaim that this feat brings from the voters, who assume that he ordered it. Hwever, the president cannot allow word to get out that he had nothing to do with it. So, sitting in the Oval Office, he calmly orders the head of the CIA to kill the Secretaries of Energy and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the president's own top adviser and the star investigative reporter for the "Washington Tribune." CIA dutifully accepts the assignment and the last few pages reveal the outcome.
If you can accept that, and can overlook the author's lack of any writing style, good luck to you.