Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Swarm - Frank Schätzing

A while ago I came across this very cheap hardcover copy of Frank Schätzing thriller De Zwerm (original title Der Schwarm). I don't read a lot books in Dutch at the moment but since this book was originally written in German I thought I might as well make it easy on myself. It is available in English translation under the title The Swarm and there is even talk of a movie adaptation. I have a few issues with the Dutch translation of the book but I won't bother you with those since most of you will never read the Dutch version. As for the novel itself, I wasn't thrilled by it. The plot itself is very far fetched and while this is not unusual for the genre, I think it could have done a better job of convincing me.

At the opening of the book a number of strange, seemingly unrelated incidents shake up things along the world's coastlines. In South America fishermen go missing. On the west coast of Canada, scientist Leon Anawak witnesses unheard of behaviour in the whales he is studying. In Norway maritime biologist Sigur Johanson is asked to study a strange kind of worm that worries the local offshore oil and gas industry. Huge numbers of highly poisonous jellyfish are spotted near the Australian coast and the world's shipping is seriously disrupted by all manner of strange events on the oceans. Not until a huge landslide in the North Atlantic causes a tsunami to hit the north sea countries, the idea that these occurrences may be related is taken seriously. By then, the world is in grave danger.

Soon after this disastrous event, an American lead task force is already analysing the reports and trying to work out a solution to the ever worsening situation. Scientists from all over the world are flown in to study the phenomenon that threatens to destroy humanity with a combination of biological warfare and natural disasters. Their opinions on the origin of the threat differ however and the ever present US security agencies contribute their own special blend of paranoia and suspicion into the already heated scientific debate.

I'm always a bit careful about picking up books with strong environmental themes. On the one hand they attract me, on the other most authors will not let science get in the way of a good story. After studying environmental science for eight years, messing up the science part can be a bit of a let down for me. Schätzing obviously put a lot of research on the various biological and geological components of his environmental nightmare. There's a couple of noticeable glitches (as far as I know methane is odourless) but nothing major that I am aware of. Somehow he still manages to combine these various elements into an incredibly unlikely scenario. The persistent use of alien to describe deep sea creatures also annoyed me. We all share the same planet.

Some people say this book is partly inspired by Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, a theory which states (insert gross oversimplification) that the biosphere and various physical components of the earth interact in series of intricate feedback mechanisms to keep the world in balance (or homoeostasis if you want to use scientific lingo). With this thought in mind it the step to hypnotizing humanity is unbalancing the system by our large scale reshaping of the world in a way Gaia can't compensate for and that, once we reach some critical point, Gaia will not be able to restore the current equilibrium. In the events in The Swarm could be seen as Gaia's response. Without giving away the whole plot, Schätzing gives Gaia a shape and humanity has to come to an agreement with her or suffer the consequences.

Personally I have always felt that while the Gaia theory had a certain appeal, (Daisyworld is still one of the best ways to explain a particular ecological principle for instance) but it is not without it's critics, and probably rightly so. We know the earth's environment is not stable on geological time scales. The feedback mechanisms that provide some stability to certain aspects of Gaia certainly exist but it seems unlikely to me a system is in place to regulate the entire system. Much of it's appeal is in the almost religious consequences of accepting Gaia, something I'm sure the scientist Lovelock is not entirely happy about. Schätzing does not imply in his book that The Swarm is in fact Gaia's last warning but there are certain parallels.

Apart from an unlikely plot the book suffers a few other flaws as well. It is in dire need of an editor's attention for instance. I will admit the book contains a lot of scientific ideas not all readers will be familiar with but Schätzing takes too much time elaborating about them. I wouldn't particularly disliked reading it if it hadn't broken the flow of the story at several points in the novel. He also seems to enjoy describing the effects of the various disasters that hit the world in detail. Schätzing employs a very large cast and as a consequence not many of them manage to gain any real depth despite the novel being 700 pages long. The American president and his right hand in dealing with the troube lieutenant general Li strike me as particularly stereotypical.

The Swarm is a book with an unlikely plot in serious need of editing and dose in depth characterization. It was clearly not what I hoped it would be. On the other hand I never seriously considered putting it down at any point in the novel. It's not a particularly demanding novel and if you manage to suspend your disbelief long enough, it's a very good book for when you have a lot of time to kill. Maybe I should have postponed reading it until my vacation later this month. In short, The Swarm didn't bore me but I still think this is a one read only book.

Book Details
Title: De Zwerm
Author: Frank Schätzing
Publisher: A.W. Bruna
Pages: 704
Year: 2008
Language: Dutch
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-229-9443-6
First published: 2004

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