The Swarm by Frank Schätzing
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
26 September 2006
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.