The Swarm: A Novel of the Deep by Frank Schatzing
Published by Hodder and Stoughton, May 2006.
Review by Hobbit
Now I am aware that success in the bestseller list does not always equate with a quality read for me. Indeed, my impression of a bestseller, especially outside the speculative fiction field, is that of a book which uses old ideas, clichéd characters, predictable settings and plots.
More so these days are the number of bestsellers which use science fiction trappings whilst then claiming that they are anything but science fiction.
So, the initial premise of this book was a little worrying for me – an underwater ecological thriller, science versus catastrophe, it’s the end of the world as we know it, etc etc. Immediately the warnings started in my head, that I’ve read this (or something like it) before. Think State of Fear, Forty Degrees of Rain, Arthur C Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Cradle, not to mention films and series such as The Day after Tomorrow, Surface, even The Triangle. The title did not inspire me either, other than to bring up thoughts of 1950’s B-movies. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, I argued to myself – after all, it’s holiday season, and sometimes you need a bit of simple reading, even if it’s only to counterbalance the heavy stuff.
However, and despite my preconceptions, I was willing to give this one a try. For those who are not aware, this is the English translation following the version published in Germany in 2004. The book was in the bestseller list in Germany for over 12 months before being translated into English.
It is rare for any translation to be published in the UK these days. After all, translations cost money. So the fact that the publishers have gone to that expense, this raises the bar a little, right? Surely a book that has sold so well must have some merit? Well, yes and no.
The basic storyline is just that: basic. The book starts with a series of environmental disasters and unusual events. Normally peace-loving whales attack ships, jellyfish proliferate, ocean currents alter, superstorms and tsunamis happen with increasing frequency and strength. An Inuit, Leon Anawak, and his student, Alicia Delaware, are two marine biologists who realise whilst studying the events that there may be a specific reason for the previously unrelated events. For the first part of the book (about 350 pages) the story opens up what seem to be relatively minor events before leading to global catastrophes in a fine apocalyptic tradition.
In time, the scientists discover that all of this damage is not random: an entity (or rather group of entities) called the Yrr is the cause, living in the world’s ocean depths and manipulating the marine ecology through millions of single cell organisms.
Once parts of the world suffer major disasters about halfway through the book, the rest of the book deals with the American military take over. After first suspecting international terrorism they decide to, in that fine 1950’s-style tradition (of course!) to work out a way to communicate with or possibly destroy the entity. Their single-minded leader, a general named Judith Li, organises a military scientific think-tank to see what can be done. There the combined intellectual might of the world’s experts (or at least those remaining) attempt to create a solution to the crisis created by the enemy from below.
OK. By now, you may be wincing a little. It’s clearly not a new plot for science fiction. I picked up similarities between this and a host of older SF books and movies, even going back to The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of my favourite movies of all time.
However, I must admit I do have a soft spot for ‘earth in peril’ stories. And I do like books about scientists creating and solving the world’s problems, in a fine tradition from books like Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, going back to books such as Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud and Arthur C Clarke’s Prelude into Space, (even when they do end up as Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass!). On both of these the book scores highly.
Schatzing’s research here appears impeccable, though his extrapolations are purely fiction. Unfortunately what often happens is that such books become so complicated technically that they lose the common reader along the way, with the scientific process being emphasised at the cost of the characters.
This book is as guilty of this as many other books of this nature: though I enjoyed them, there are large paragraphs, if not pages, of lecture-style exposition and scientific babble as the tale progresses. Scientists explain to other scientists and non-specialists, reporters dumb things down to be entertaining; huge great swathes of text that may put some readers off.
For me though, I can safely say that it was an educational experience as well as an entertaining one. I learned much about topics as diverse as whales and dolphin routines, ocean currents, jellyfish, ocean parasites, climate change, earth satellite observation, continental drift, animals-as-weapons, nitrates, oil drilling, Inuit lifestyles…. The list is quite impressive.
Consequently, it is not a book that can be accused of talking down to its readers. Such details do slow the book down in places, and definitely fills the pages (880 pages of fairly small text), but I found that cumulatively, the range of details added another layer of believability to the events unfolding. Whether true or not, the diversity of background material gave me a better idea of what was going on, and as I read, made me feel more and more that this could happen.
The main weakness of the book is one often found in these books. At such a length, there is a broad range of characters – minor as well as major, which can take a bit of following. There is a grizzly old scientist called Sigur Johanson, whose interest leads him to investigate strange goings-on on (and under) the ocean floor; an ex-military environmentalist called Jack Greywolf, a reporter called Karen Weaver who is involved when her research leads her down that well trodden path, a chain-smoking scientist whose expertise is alien communication called Samantha Crowe…. the list is long and varied.
Secondly, though the book is better than many I’ve read, Schatzing’s characters in places do not entirely come across as realistic as they could be. Some people did end up as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies.’ I did have problems with a creature called Yrr, (though it is amusingly explained in the book as a random keyboard error!); however in the grand old days of AE van Vogt, stranger things did happen.
What I did enjoy a lot was the global breadth of the story. As the alien threat becomes more definable, the cumulative global effects are given from a global perspective. This gave me a real impression that major catastrophes were not just confined to one area of the world (as did say, Independence Day.) What was a little refreshing to this reviewer’s (admittedly rather cynical) eye was that the view of the book was more global based than expected, though this should perhaps be expected due to the book’s European heritage. As the effects are felt globally, the book becomes a globe-spanning book, concerning global issues. Through a long list of events, the book takes the reader to Mexico, the United States, Canada, Norway, France, Germany, Australia, the North Sea and many other places besides.
Ultimately, despite the book’s length, the pages do turn, and some of the set ups are written well enough to be exciting, even (in these days of seemingly-regular natural disasters) a tad uncomfortable. Credit must be given to the stirling work of Sally-Ann Spencer, whose job was to translate this from the German, and still make it make sense. This she manages admirably.
So, despite my initial misgivings, and with minor reservations, I can recommend this one if you’re looking for a blockbuster to read whilst at the airport this summer. If you enjoyed the film The Abyss, Carl Sagan’s Contact (which is referenced in the novel) Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain or State of Fear or perhaps Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels (though I think this is much better), then this might be one for you. As blockbusters go, this one is pretty impressive, (and heavy!) and certainly a cut above the norm.
A book to make you think ‘what-if,’ a pleasant way to while away hours whilst sitting on the beach on your summer holiday, (and definitely made me think what’s out there!), very entertaining if you can stand the distance, but not one to push the genre forward too hard. A book not for the weak of arm, without stamina, or those who find ‘scientists at work’ dull. For me, at the end of it I could say that it is typical of what good SF makes you do – makes you think. And for that reason its bestseller status deserves to be repeated outside Germany.
Hobbit, August 2006.