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The Swarm by Frank Schätzing

02/02/2008. Contributed by Neale Monks

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pub: Hodder And Stoughton. 881 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-340-89523-3).

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One of the news stories at the moment is about the Japanese re-starting their whaling industry in the Antarctic seas. So here's a question: how would humans react if the whales were able to shoot back. In 'The Swarm', Frank Schätzing imagines a world where the natural world finally decides to turn the tables on humanity after years of exploitation and misuse. It isn't just the whales that are attacking people, it's everything from swarms of jellyfish to exploding lobsters.

Eventually, some marine biologists establish that these incidents are all connected and that what they are witnessing is an organised war against humanity orchestrated by a deep-sea form of intelligent microbial life that they call the Yrr. Besides instructing marine animals to hunt the humans that have hunted them for so many centuries, the Yrr genetically manipulate existing life-forms to build new ones more appropriate to the battle.

Schätzing cleverly avoids the easy option of creating Godzilla-like monsters that would simply trample mankind to death, but instead using subtle changes that highlight man's intimate to the natural world by subverting it. So while zebra mussels already have nuisance value as fouling organisms (that is, they block pipes and canals), the improved zebra mussels the Yrr come up with do exactly the same thing, only better.

Of course, the other side to a tale like this is how humanity reacts and here is where Schätzing gets to contrast the gung-ho Americans military with, well, everyone else. At first, the Americans try to communicate with the Yrr, but when that doesn't work, they decide to wipe out the Yrr and end the problem, reverting to the crude law of it's them or us. As things worsen, both sides ramp up their efforts, with humans coming up with more ingenious weapons, while the Yrr send out plagues and change the weather.

Simply setting the stage for this conflict takes Schätzing several hundred pages. This is a very long book and though the translation is robust and accurate, my German friends assure me that even in the original language the book is pretty heavy going. So, at times, the reader has to wade through quite a bit of science. Perhaps 'wade' isn't the best word to use here. As someone trained in the sciences myself, I enjoyed the effort the author has made to ground his story in plausible theory and a careful appreciation of marine biology. But still, readers looking for punchy, Hollywood-style thrills will find 'The Swarm' a bit slow and deliberate.

On the other hand, the sheer size of the book in terms of breadth as well as length means that there are a lot of characters, almost none of whom are particularly engaging. A lot of characters exist only to be bumped off in one way or another, while others are more caricatures than fully-formed people. There's no real psychology at the level of characters at least, though Schätzing does perhaps study humanity more adroitly, if only to make the reactions of the various populations and nation states seem more plausible.

In terms of themes, Schätzing's book isn't entirely without parallel. One of Frank Herbert's lesser known stories is 'The Green Brain', a story about an intelligent organism that evolves as a reaction against humanity's dominance of the ecosphere, and there are obvious parallels between Herbert's 'Green Brain' and the Yrr conjured up by Schätzing. British SF writer John Wyndham was always very fond of creating apocalyptic stores where the natural world demolishes the cosy world mankind had built around himself. The deep-sea threat manifest in 'The Kraken Wakes' and the vegetable terror of 'The Day of the Triffids' are two of the best known.

'The Swarm' finishes with a brief epilogue written as an argument against those who within Christianity who see the 'dominion' over the natural world authorised by the Bible as meaning that mankind is pretty much free to do whatever he wants to the planet. Putting aside the commentary made concerning the Fifth Commandment (which only makes sense if the Catholic Fifth Commandment is the one being referred to, rather than, say, the Jewish one), this epilogue is thought-provoking if not entirely of a piece with the rest of the novel. So the book ends, if not completely catastrophically, then at least certain in its uncertainty and very slightly on a somewhat preachy note.

Bottom line: a good read, if a long one, as much science as Science Fiction and with a worthy message to boot.

Neale Monks

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