Book Review: The Swarm

With the subtitle A Novel Of The Deep, The Swarm by German author Frank Schätzing is an environmental thriller with a marine theme. Translated from the German Der Schwarm into English in 2006, the book tackles a range of complex issues, drawing upon the challenges of deep-sea oil exploration, marine science, animal ethics and the role of mankind’s relationship with nature. The story is worthy of a Hollywood disaster movie, and the plot sees most of Northern Europe in ruin and the rest of the world on its knees, along the way delivering a staunch warning to mankind about how we treat our world.

The novel opens with a series of unexplained accidents along the coast of South America, where deep-sea fishermen have gone missing, their boats found unmanned and adrift. Eventually, the plot unfolds into humanity’s worst nightmare, and militant environmentalists’ wet (pun intended) dream: what if the oceans fought back? What if the oceans started exacting revenge on humanity for all the waste we’ve poured into them, all the overfishing, and all the other harm we’ve done to them for centuries? Think Independence Day meets The Sea Shepherd and you’ve got a good idea of the plot.

The story centers on an ensemble of main characters, the majority of them marine scientists from various fields, and all of whom are called into action when strange things start to happen in the world’s oceans. It all begins with a new species of worms living on the methane hydrate deposits on the world’s deep-sea continental shelves. As the worms munch through the methane hydrate, they collapse, taking the continental shelves, and most of the world’s coast lines, with them (not a too far-fetched scenario, and a possible outcome of global warming), destroying a large portion of the industrialized world. But that is just the beginning, and when poisonous jellyfish and crabs attack, whales start sinking ships, and underwater probes start going missing, it becomes obvious that there’s something going on, and that mankind has a new enemy.

The main problem with the novel is that it’s too long; the story quite simply would have worked far better if it had been trimmed. There’s too much downtime. The author takes his time building the premise, following multiple characters around the world and adding little plot elements here and there. This is a classic way of building tension, but the story takes too long to get going, and the reader will be a third into the book before the plot starts to develop in earnest. And even here, there are overly long passages exploring philosophical questions or characters’ backstories, which are unnecessary to advance the plot along.

It’s clear that a lot of work has gone into the novel, from the above-mentioned character development to accurate representations of oceanography and other science used in the book. And the book does a great job of introducing complex, scientific topics in easy-to-understand ways. However, as the story progresses, it simply tries to bring too many things on board. Oceanography and marine biology are digestible topics, but when accompanied by genetics, cultural studies, the search for extraterrestrial life, conservation, marine engineering, history, oenology and much, much more, the task load of the book simply becomes too much, and the story starts straining under the weight of all of the topics it has to carry.

Which is a shame, because when the novel works, it works well. The main idea is quite original and seemingly well researched. The book is entertaining, outdoing many Hollywood disaster movies in certain passages and, as long as you skim a bit, it is a pleasurable read. Especially if you, too, sometimes wish the ocean could fight back.

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