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The Swarm
Frank Schatzing
Regan Books, 881 pages

The Swarm
Frank Schatzing
In addition to the international bestseller Der Schwarm, Frank Schatzing is also the author of several novels, including the recent political and historical thrillers Lautlos and Keine Angst. Before becoming Germany's most successful thriller writer in decades, Schatzing was an advertising executive. He lives in Cologne, Germany.

Publisher's page
Accusation of plagiarism
REVIEWS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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In The Swarm, Frank Schatzing postulates a situation where the sea, which we have been abusing for years, strikes back under the direction of an unknown living entity previously content to inhabit the trench depths -- the Yrr. Whales begin attacking ships, hordes of jellyfish shut down the beaches of South America, and a strange new marine worm is destabilizing frozen methane in the sea bottom. The scientists are fascinated, the powerful want it stopped at any cost, and the little guy is being overwhelmed by tsunamis and poisoned sea-food. A global ecosystem shift is in the offing and while it's clear humans have a lot to do with it, it isn't clear they're going to survive it.

I must admit that, notwithstanding its bestseller status (in Germany), I had a lot of trouble finishing The Swarm, from a quarter of the way through, reading it in 10-15 page stints to finish it off. On the positive side, Schatzing's science is very well researched and has a firm basis in current knowledge, maybe too much so: at times the book's poorly disguised multi-page infodumps read a bit like the introduction to an article in a scientific journal (I know I've written and read many), one almost expects footnotes or a bibliography. This gives the work a firm setting in objective reality, makes it believable to the average reader, but its didacticism does nothing for the flow of the action. Not that it is likely intended as an action thriller, but rather a thinking-man's thriller exposing possible outcomes of unsustainable human practices in using and managing the seas. Given Schatzing's previous career in advertising, the book, for good or bad, has the underlying feel of a slick promotion campaign for not messing with Mother Earth, or in this case Mother Sea.

Positively, The Swarm doesn't portray disaster from a merely local Eurocentric or Americocentric perspective, shifting to different events across the world (unlike for example the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Admittedly the necessary gung-ho paranoid military types turn out to be Americans, but someone's got to nuke the damn things. In this sense, The Swarm is similar to J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World (1962), but hasn't the depth of human interaction and the latter's characters' quasi-mystical acceptance of the situation. The Swarm is clinical, impersonal, the interactions between people perhaps realistic but certainly not dramatic. The contrary is true of The Drowned World. Amusingly, the Yrr, whose origins are not made transparent might well be surviving remnants of John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes (1953) a.k.a. Out of the Deeps (US), invading aliens who populate and deregulate the seas. Again in Wyndham, there is drama.

At times, Schatzing's prose (or at least that of his translatrix) is somewhat awkward in rendering what are presumbaly German idioms. Whoever's prose it is, it is rather ordinary, with little power to create atmosphere. In one of the earliest tales of animals turning against men, Arthur Machen's land-based novella The Terror (1917), he certainly brings forth scientific facts and hypotheses to support his plot, but its inclusion is seamless and his wonderful prose creates more atmosphere in its 60-odd pages than Schatzing has over 800. Similarly, I recently reread H.F. Heard's short story "The Great Fog" (1944), a tale of ecological disaster induced by an escaped bioengineered fungus. While it preaches somewhat shrilly for a life of simplicity, it is firmly based in the science of its time (it begins with a meteorologist and a botanist's exchange on scientific matters), yet still reads well and creates a good sense of the claustrophobic life inside a constant dense fog. Unlike with Schatzing's work, one could argue that Heard's story is mainly about what occurs after the disaster, but it nonetheless left me much more satisfied than the latter.

While Schatzing has assembled the tropes of disaster novels in a novel and thought provoking manner, and I learned things I didn't know about deep sea-beds, I had a great deal of difficulty in maintaining interest. It is not that there aren't some suspenseful sequences, but these are far outweighed by the rest. This observation of mine may be a result of the fact that I tend to read SF more for entertainment than to expand my scientific knowledge -- that I can do in journals or textbooks. Still, The Swarm's message regarding environmental sustainability, appropriate human stewardship of the sea, and straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back environmental thresholds which if exceeded can induce a cascade of irreversible disastrous events is not entirely a bad thing for today's readers to absorb.

Copyright © 2006 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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