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The Swarm U.S. cover

The Swarm U.K. cover

Popular thrillers (or airport novels, as I like to call them) enjoy an interesting relationship to the corridors of power. Consumed in their millions, these books give widely read authors the opportunity to plant ideas in the public consciousness that can't help but have far-ranging political repercussions. For example, Michael Crichton's State of Fear (2004) argues that there is no compelling evidence for the belief that global warming is caused by human pollution. Given the shocking levels of Western scientific illiteracy, whom are people more likely to believe: some scientist they've never heard of or the guy who wrote Jurassic Park (1990)? As a response to such antics comes German book The Swarm, an eco-thriller in the tradition of The Day after Tomorrow and Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain (both 2004). However, while author Frank Schätzing delivers a few nice scenes, his own scientific illiteracy and the sheer size of the book combine to make it something of a natural disaster in its own right.

The book begins gently, with some scientists employed by an oil company discovering a new species of deep-sea worm, while an Inuit whale watcher discovers that the migration patterns of local cetaceans have been disrupted. But before long, a tidal wave hits the coasts of Western Europe, poison algae kill people, whales sink aircraft carriers, and lobsters act like suicide bombers. (No, I'm not kidding.) As Western society starts to collapse, a band of intrepid scientists manages to discover the alien intelligence (known as the yrr) that is behind all of these attacks and attempts to find some way of ending the hostilities.

As far as the demands of the popular thriller genre are concerned, The Swarm is a pretty good read (the lively and engaging translation is by Sally-Ann Spencer). Its basic plot is similar to that of a disaster movie, in that things start off slowly and then begin to pick up speed as the narrative meanders through a series of increasingly impressive set pieces until reaching a climax. One lavish and highly destructive example boasts such accuracy that, allegedly, after reading the book, some people were able to identify the early signs of a tsunami and flee to safety. This simplistic structure works because it drags the action relentlessly forward, eternally building tension and a sense of danger until the final, explosive denouement. However, the problem with The Swarm is that every time Schätzing starts to tighten the pace, he immediately lets it go slack by choosing to pursue some lengthy piece of character development or unnecessarily detailed but poorly thought-out scientific tangent. In fact, even the tsunami is interrupted by a character in the process of considering a threesome with a pair of Norwegian guys. When it comes to thrillers, a tight narrative is a tense narrative—and The Swarm's narrative is as loose as a three-dollar cliché.

The book also follows the lead of generic action movies with poorly drawn and two-dimensional characters, split into "goody" and "baddie" camps along broadly nationalist lines. This results in sickeningly worthy creations such as an Eskimo whale expert who battles against right-wing American Christians so evil that I would not have been surprised if Schätzing had made them spend much of their free time killing puppies with hammers. This poor characterisation is instantly made worse by the sheer amount of it demanded by The Swarm's thirty-odd main characters and the interweaving plotlines that pull them together. This profligacy also forces the bloating of what should have been a cracking little thriller into a nine-hundred-page behemoth. However, as bad as the characterisation in this novel might be, it is nowhere near as poor as Schätzing's grasp on scientific matters.

The Swarm is so full of science that you can't go more than a couple of pages without encountering some talk of oceanic currents or whale DNA. However, for all his research into marine biology (and with a law case for plagiarism pending, there's a question mark over whether it actually is his research), Schätzing seems confused over which moral message his book is supposed to carry. For example, one of the main moral arguments for environmentalism is that by polluting the planet we are setting in motion natural processes that, if left unchecked, will ultimately come to threaten humanity's very survival. If we accept this scientific hypothesis (and, apart from Michael Crichton and the Bush administration, most people do), it follows that anyone who gains money or power from polluting the planet—putting his or her own short-term gains ahead of the good of the rest of humanity—is therefore immoral. Indeed, this simple piece of moral calculus is what underpins such eco-thrillers as The Day after Tomorrow and even recent documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth. However, despite clearly wishing to champion a green agenda, Schätzing does not share this moral viewpoint, for whereas most eco-thrillers ultimately blame mankind for the environmental catastrophes that befall it, The Swarm blames the yrr.

Schätzing downplays the role of natural processes in causing his imaginative series of natural disasters, opting instead to see them as the master plan of a huge undersea hive-mind bent on taking revenge for our polluting its natural habitat. The problem is that under this formulation, man is no more to blame for the environmental catastrophes that befall him than a woman wearing revealing clothing is to blame for being raped. In both cases the victims made decisions that played a causal role in their being attacked, but in no way are they morally culpable on the grounds that just as the rapist chooses to rape his victim, so the yrr choose to attempt to exterminate humanity. Just as the rapist was free to walk past the woman in the miniskirt, so the yrr were free to try and solve their problems with humanity in a more civilized manner. This raises problems with regards to the book's moral center, because if humanity were to blame for the environmental catastrophes, then the logical response would be for humanity to consider its actions and adopt a more progressive attitude towards the environment. However, if the environmental catastrophes are caused by another intelligent species, then a progressive attitude towards protecting nature becomes tantamount to appeasing the genocidal butchers who clearly think it better to try and wipe humanity out than reach some kind of agreement. In fact, having read Schätzing's characterisation of man's relationship with nature, it is difficult to see what message to take away from it. Should we continue to pollute, as it isn't natural processes but undiscovered intelligent species that will stop us? Or should we stop polluting for fear that old Poseidon will awaken and seek revenge? Schätzing seems to suggest that we ought to think about the environment a bit more; he's just not too sure about why.

At the heart of The Swarm there is an intensely readable eco-thriller full of action and destruction trying to get out. The problem is that this hypothetically punchy little book is weighted down with hundreds of pages of soul-destroying characterisation and unnecessary scientific detail that is instantly undermined by Schätzing's failure to identify the moral centre of environmentalism, meaning that no matter how spectacular its imagery may be, it is still a dull, preachy, and spectacularly wrongheaded joke of a book.

Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic. Currently teaching after conducting research in fields as diverse as biological warfare and the epistemology of metaphysics, he writes articles and reviews that are collected on his blog, SF Diplomat, and chairs the world's first childfree political group, Kidding Aside—the British Childfree Association.



Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood in East Sussex. Twice shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction he writes mostly about film on his blog Ruthless Culture and mostly about science fiction as a regular columnist for the British science fiction magazine Interzone.
25 comments on “The Swarm by Frank Schätzing”
openyoureyes

Quote: "Schätzing seems to suggest that we ought to think about the environment a bit more; he's just not too sure about why."
Not sure why? I think he is very much sure about why.
But if YOU don't see the point, you're just as hopeless as most of the human population.
Know that joke?:
One planet meets another and says "Well, you look terrible, what's wrong?"
Replies the other one "I've got humans."
Says the first one "Oh, don't worry, I've had them too. They're gone soon..."
For the sake of this planet I hope the joke is based on reality!

The reason why we need to stop polluting might be obvious to you, I and all sensible people on the face of the planet but that does not mean that it is obvious in the context of this book.
Schatzing replaces global warming and all of the various environmental feedback loops with a pissed of Cthuloid thing that has no interest in talking to us, simply wiping us out.
My point is that in trying to lecture us about the need to stop polluting, Schatzing has created a universe in which the very thing that forms the moral basis for environmentalism (i.e. that it hurts us in the long run) doesn't exist.
There are excellent environmentalist thrillers out there (I even name a few) but this isn't one of them.

Alex

There's nothing as deceptive as jumping into a new experience carrying such a heavy load of preconceived notions.
For example, reading a book such as "the swarm" adopting the role of an "I'm going to read an environmentalist thriller, please activate all my clichés and formulas about the subject to see how he uses them". There's no need for that. Empty the cup. Read. And then see how you like it.
Otherwise, you're just like those people that go to seminars of any kind seeking to find something similar to anything they already knew about the subject, blocking that way any possibility to learn (or simply enjoy).

man friday

I am normally in the front row to criticize "airport novels", but Jonathans view of the novel is vastly skewed. (May be the translation is bad - I read the original version)
My recommendation is: Read the book, it's worth it.
It's a bit otiose to really argue about Jonathans view, so I only pick some superficial items:
"begins gently, with some scientists employed by an oil company" - in my version it begins with a professor at a university in Norway and a scientist working for an oil company.
"whales sink aircraft carriers" - wow! The translation seems to be very lucid. The original has nothing but small boats sinked by whales.
"unnecessarily detailed but poorly thought-out scientific tangent" - Hm, Schätzing looked like some genius to mee until I read who planted the thoughts into his mind... (just look at the references at the end of the book and be sure they are all completely deluded and have no clue of natural science whereas Jonathan has a profound knowledge (what was Jonathans main topic at college?))
"for whereas most eco-thrillers ultimately blame mankind for the environmental catastrophes that befall it, The Swarm blames the yrr." Wow! by now I am sure Jonathan did not read the book. - And: Do not think the book has a morale. It's a thriller and a well thought-out one. It can give you some new thoughts but you still have to think yourself.
"The problem is that under this formulation, man is no more to blame for the environmental catastrophes that befall him than a woman wearing revealing clothing is to blame for being raped." - I should have read the complete article before starting this comment. This is so disgusting and dumb that ...

Will

Did anyone notice the laundry list of polluters,all unnamed except Israel and its pollutive destruction of Syria and Jordan. Aside from that, the book is long winded, ignorant of basic cetacean physiology and floats a premise that is essentially taken from Bermuda triangle and x-file hysteria. I read most of this book on a flight between Tokyo and Dallas and probably would have better served by reading the instructions on the barf bag over and over again.

Fred White

I am in the process of reading the Swarm. I am not into the trendy environmentalist bull, but I respect earth and all that makes it so beautiful. So back to the book. I found it a bit long at times. The details are often not necessary, but I am enjoying it. Why do people assume it has a deep message,people don't need to read a book to know that the planet is suffering and that something has to be done. We are all noticing changes in the climate, more rain, hotter etc... We do not have so much information regarding what is happening in the oceans but I bet there are problems there the mere mortal is not aware of. Thanks to the Swarm I read for the first time about methane hydrates and check it on the web, and yes there is a lot going on around the world regarding them. Everybody is all existed about the harvesting of methane hydrates but what of the consequences? Is someone asking questions?
Of course this is just an example of what I learnt reading the Swarm. Sorry some of you do not like it, I DO. I am no scientist or expert, but this book with its extremes, still raise a few questions and I like that.

kmb

I really doubt if you have read this novel with sincerety... sure the characters may seem a bit one-dimensional, but I cannot find any major scientific blunder that you so often mention. If you have some cases in mind then it would be much helpful to list them clearly, instead of waging your own agenda about ecology etc. Since I'm a professional scientist I won't take such mistakes lightly, had I found some. Instead, I have found this book more informative and entertaining than all those books you mention combined.

timbo

Criticizing a novel because it lacks a "moral centre" is pretty irrelevant. Did the author say that he was writing a morality play? Does it say on the back of the book that he was writing an allegory aimed at teaching us the value of protecting our environment?
Saying that a woman wearing a short skirt plays a causal role in her being attacked is ignorant and fairly offensive. Only 26% of reported rapes in the US in 2005 were committed by strangers, whereas 74% were committed by acquaintances, friends and relatives (2% uknown, http://www.rainn.org), as opposed to men just walking on the streets. Suggesting that wearing revealing clothing is a causative factor in rape, implying that women dressing in such a way “are just asking to be raped,” is presumptuous, chauvinistic and many other words implying “wrong.” Even though you say that it is not the woman’s fault morally, you still say that it’s her fault causally, thus taking some of the blame, however small, from the offender.
You’re saying that humanity is not morally to blame for the environmental catastrophes because they are caused by a sentient species, but we would be to blame if the disasters were natural. First, you are holding the sentient species to standards of forgiveness and nonviolence that have been created by humans, when the species might not hold any of those values and thus can’t be expected to abide by them. Second, you are denying the species the right to defend itself. Humans are killing living creatures around the globe without a thought, yet just because one of these species is intelligent, they are expected to try to reach an agreement? Provoking an attack is morally culpable, and responding in kind is acceptable. Instead of likening humanity to a woman wearing revealing clothing, you should liken them to a nation firing missiles at another nation. If the attacked nation fires back instead of using diplomacy to try to stop the attacking nation, are they to blame? Are they just to ignore their wounded or dead citizens and try to reach a cease fire? And is the attacking country absolved from blame because the attacked had the choice not to fire back?
It seems that this review is written more for the simple joy of negativity than anything else. Bashing someone’s work just for that sake, being the critic who doesn’t count and “the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better” is certainly enjoyable (as evidenced by this critique of your critique). But it’s pretty obvious that that’s what you’re doing, which takes away the appeal of reading this. Luckily I put the appeal back into it by hypocritically criticizing your criticisms. I’m actually just gearing up for the LSAT and wanted to practice taking apart an argument. Hell, I haven’t even read the book.

dchristof

"most eco-thrillers ultimately blame mankind for the environmental catastrophes that befall it, The Swarm blames the yrr." I think you got it a little bit wrong. Actually, Schätzing blames the humans who have brought the planet to a point where the Yrrs had to take action for the ecosystem's survival.
"Just as the rapist was free to walk past the woman in the miniskirt, so the yrr were free to try and solve their problems with humanity in a more civilized manner." Now, here I'm missing your point. Are you actually presenting how YOU would like this alien race to have been developed in the book? It seems that as one other commentator wrote you are being way too negative to be able to justify it..
I believe that critics most of the time get caught up in the act of critising and miss the sheer pleasure of reading a book without expecting the world from it.

Guys --
1) It's a novel with strong environmentalist overtones. Environmentalism being ultimately a political movement, it matters immensely where the "moral center" of the novel is. Though it's a while since I read this, I remember the moral center being entirely askew.
2) I was trying to say that actually, in this book, man is as much to blame for what befalls him as a woman is when she chooses to wear a short skirt; namely not at all. So you got the wrong end of the stick there.
3) I'm quite happy comparing it to a nation firing missiles at another nation. The correct analogy would be nation A does lots of stuff completely unaware that there is a nation B to harm and nation B responds by nuking all of nation A's cities. Nation A is negligent. Nation B is like North Korea on PCP.
You're quite right though that the Cthuloid thing can't really be held to human moral standards but then, as in point (1), what are we to take away from this book when it comes to polluting the environment? don't pollute because Cthulhu might exist and not be happy about toxic waste being dumped on his sunken city? It's not clear. I think the book was intended, at least partially, as an environmentalist allegory and I judged it as such. If the cthuloid thing hadn't been sentient there wouldn't have been this problem with the book's moral calculus. It could just as easily have been some homeostatic feedback system such as Gaia trying to wipe out the infection by breeding the planetary equivalent of white blood cells but no... Schatzing introduced sentience into the equation and, as a result, I think he undermined his own argument.
4) I agree that many people read for fun and don't want this level of analysis directed at their fiction and should that be the case a) don't read my work, b) reject my work out of hand and/or c) go read SFRevu or Amazon reviews instead of this site.
The reason why I was so down on this book was not because it contravened my intellectual principles but because I found it astonishingly dull. The fact that it was deeply conceptually flawed was just a bonus from a critic's point of view.

Vince S

Well, I am about two-thirds of the way through the novel, and am enjoying it quite a lot. I think the characters quite well drawn, especially Leon Anawak, and I have no qualms with diversions to develop them. I think Schatzing should be lauded for even trying to incorporate so many different scientifc disciplines. As for the "moral calculus" of the novel, it seems quite obvious that the Cthulu "thingie"--the yrr--works to add a sense of wonder to the novel, but does not negate the main message of the book: WE as a species are destroyng our planet. And it IS fiction.
And what the heck is wrong with a long novel? Short-attention span? Find the book boring? Too bad for you.
No one would call THE SWARM high-literature, but it is a good read--in my opinion. You want to read an SF novel that offers creatures that make the yrr pale in comparison? Try Greg Bear's VITALS. As nightmarish a novel as I have ever read.
Some books entertain me; others change my life. THE SWARM entertains me, but gives me food for thought as well.
As for affecting public opinion through a popular novel, a la Chricton, what do you expect? Looks at Fox news. Most people prefer a palatable truth, I fear.
Oh, and what timbo said!

Jeff Barton

Ignore all the negative stuff about this book. It's not some textbook on ecological disasters...Its an entertaining potboiler of over 800 pages that had me glued to it for three days.
I liked the characters, and unlike the reviewer I found them to be not shallow 'black and white' figures. Even the bad guys have reasons for what they do, although one of them goes off the rails a bit at the end.
The science seemed pretty correct in most aspects, certainly good enough to be believable.
In short, read it, it's a pretty good book.

yolisa

i like the book so far... and i have enjoyed reading your comments and reviews. I disagreee with most of what Jonathan Mclamont has said but i wont bother to go through it coz it has been mentioned already.
i just want to point out that Jeff Barton's statement about the science being pretty correct to be believable is not entirely true. Even though most of the science is true, he did base a good amount on the fact that methane has a rotten egg like smell.
But as far as i know, that is sulphur related and methane related gases are actually colorless and odorless...
but aside from that i LOVE LOVE the book though i havent finished it yet...
cheers and happy new year!

another man

Jonathan McIamont:
"....for whereas most eco-thrillers ultimately blame mankind for the environmental catastrophes that befall it, The Swarm blames the yrr."
You really really didnt understand anything - or why you didnt comment that !?
whatsoever its a NOVEL - take it as it is or do it better !

Bean Bungler

Jonathan -
I'm glad you used the term 'allegory' - it's the word I was searching for. If we are to read it as potential allegory (or as any sort of art), we shouldn't try to shoehorn it into 'moral' scaffolds.
Would any political or philosophical creed be worth neurons it's printed on, if it didn't allow for the springs and tributaries of artistic interpretation?
I had misgivings (perhaps related) for the fact that, after the attribution of responsibility (which I feel is to be found within the book), there is the usual absence of any notion of 'what to do'. Yes, Frank excuses himself from the room at that point, as the new world takes shape; but the suggestion that the solution may involve mundane, individual, day-to-day decisions never surfaces.

kgm

I am in the middle of reading this book. It is a fast paced and exciting read. I probably read more books in one year than most people do in a lifetime, and I feel that this is one of the best science fiction books that I have ever read. I suspect that our so-called critic is not a fan of science fiction in the first place, either that, or he is an idiot. There is absolutely nothing dull or boring about this book! He probably doesn't like J.R.R. Tolkien either.

Troodon

I'm afraid you fell into a trap here -- the book is apparently to such a large extent about American characters and their values that you have come to believe the author intended to write it according some Hollywood-style rules. Remember he is European. American books and movies come with religious and moral taboos and politically correct statements, and always a take-home message. But you don't really need that when writing a book. Let your imagination roam freely. It's a long story, so what? Part of it is scientifically inaccurate, and that's fine. Crichton once said that entertainment and reality are antithetical. As for the character whose "considering a threesome" with two Norwegian guys interrups the tsunami, I would say it was an interesting time-out. In the Terminator movie, Linda Hamilton's room mate and her boygriend were sharing an intimate moment when they were attacked by the machine. On a different but similar note, have you watched the opening of the Olympics in Beijing? Have you realized how many people in this world do not speak English and are doing just fine? The author of "The Swarm" did his homework well enough to get Hollywood's attention. Rumors are the movie will released in 2010.

reader today

This novel was written for ENJOYMENT. It was to make one think and broaden their views. Who cares if he went into unnecessary detail, it was ingeniously written and fully understandable. The translation was seamless and kept me up for 10 hours reading it cover to cover. This novel is a must read!

Krisztián Pintér

this review is 100% worthless. everyone has the right to formulate an opinion. but an opinion based on misinterpretation and downright false information, well, lacks value. just one example: "whales sink aircraft carriers". not in this book, pal. here, only smaller boats were sunken by whales.

Ubersnuber

I too, think this story has got an identity crisis.
Many of the comments questions if the OP has read the whole book, ranting about how Jonathan seemingly has missed the point completely.
But where did he miss the point? Except from the whale sinking aircraft carriers part, I fail to find any noteworthy errors in this review.
Yrr seemed to be the culprit behind all of the disasters throughout the story, and it, to me, seemed like Yrr was the real threat and not us.
Yes, it was brought up that we might bring a new ice age upon ourselves or a 600 meter all destroying wave if we didn't quit poisoning the planet, and this understandably pissed off the our dear friend yrr..which reacted by trying to get rid of us by, get this, sending us into a new ice age or destroying us all by bringing a new ice age on our asses...
Makes sense, no? :/
This didn't really bother me that much, to be perfectly honest (didn't really think about it until I read Johns review).
What really ruined it for me, which also is mentioned in this review, is that the first parts of the book was really well paced and a joy to read, while the last parts just falls apart, partly because of interruptions in the form of tacked on techy stuff that doesn't really need to be there (satelite part comes to mind) or anything else that really doesn't need to be there and serves more as a frustration to the reader more than anything (trip down to yrr where the lady talks to herself...for 10+ fucking pages! aaaargh!!)
And the climax part was never really there, which was a shame, because I felt how the buildup prepared for a big one. But it crashed and burned in the launching stage, literally!

Ubersnuber

Whoops, a little blunder in my original post.
"which reacted by trying to get rid of us by, get this, sending us into a new ice age or destroying us all by bringing a new ice age on our asses..."
should read:
"which reacted by trying to get rid of us by, get this, sending us into a new ice age or destroying us all by bringing a 600 meter wave on our asses..."

MAG

To Jonathan McCalmont:
no matter how spectacular you criticism may be, it is still a dull, preachy, and spectacularly wrongheaded joke of a review.
Either you haven't read the book or you are too dumm to get anything from reading except for the instructions.

Fred

SPOILER WARNING!
Ok, so it's not a great book. It's long, it's preachy, and the ending sucks. But I fail to see the lack of moral that McCalmont has such a problem with. In my opinion there is no doubt that Schatzing blames the human race for destroying the planet. That's the main goddamn theme, is it not? The Human Race is stupid, it leaks oil into the oceans, it pisses its own pants – that's one of the few things the many, many, many characters of the book seem to agree on. People pollute, the planet is dying. It's our fault. We should stop. The theme is impossible to miss, or so I thought. McCalmont missed it somehow.
The part where a sea monster of some kind gets grumpy and decides to save the planet by wiping mankind out, hey, that's fiction (but might still be a good idea.)
To make it simple, this is how I understood the book: 1) The human race is destroying the planet. 2) Sea monster gets pissed off. 3) Mayhem, death is imminent. Damn. 4) Ok, we managed to calm down the monster, now it's up to us to start saving our planet. 5) Well, to be honest, that was the situation from the start. (Remember the part where all characters agree that the Human Race is destroying the planet?)
But hey, maybe I got it wrong.
By the way, the part with the rape, that was some distasteful writing.

I am proud of this review. Nearly four years old and it's still attracting angrily disgruntled comments like Jupiter sucking in comets 🙂

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