AE reviews: The Swarm by Frank Schatzing

What would the sentience of an eternal swarm organism be? Planning to outlive humanity as inexorably and inevitably as the currents of the sea.

Pods of orcas turned violent hunters, tearing through wale watchers and coastal fishermen. Waves of deep sea worms venturing into methane deposits, releasing the gas and accelerating climate change. Endless armies of crabs sweeping Boston, Philadelphia and New York, carrying neurotoxic algae into city water systems. In this dark world, the oceans have suddenly and completely turned against mankind.

Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm, released to quiet but positive reception, is a book about nature turning suddenly hostile to mankind. The book’s cover reveals the central conceit, so I’ll repeat it here without worrying about spoiling it (spoiler alert). Deep in the oceans an ancient swarm intelligence has been watching humanity, living in parallel with us but hidden from view.  Our determined use of the oceans as a global waste dump finally leads it to see us as a threat, and to slowly but surely plot human extinction.

On the surface, the alien and misanthropic forces of nature in the Swarm are a commentary on climate change – a common trend in science fiction from the 1960s onwards, as in NK Jemisin’s brilliant 5th season (And the rest of the Broken Earth trilogy), and in earlier work such as John Wyndham’s delightful 1968 novel The Kraken Wakes, in which mysterious aliens colonize the deep ocean and obliterate human civilization by deliberately melting the ice shelves. It’s easy to see why this narrative persists. If we have transgressed against the earth, shouldn’t we expect there to be a punishment? How do you confront forces that seem impossible to stop or understand? Shouldn’t those with the greatest personal responsibility for climate change confront the consequences of what they have unleashed, rather than their children and grandchildren?

For Schatzing, the central conflict pivots on the conflict between a military response and a scientific one. One side is a caricature of blundering militarism, featuring big boats, big bombs, sociopathic generals, and a light dose of bureaucratic subterfuge. The other side is an idealized team of adventuring scientists, bravely fighting for a rational, planned, and nonviolent response. Neither stereotype is satisfying: the brutes are boiled down archetypes with only idiocy and aggression to paint their villainhood. Their natural opponents are an impossibly collaborative, amorous, and courageous team – heroes whose motives and interactions are dependably predictable. Their number exacerbates the problem. Over the course of 800 pages Schatzing switches his focus between well over a dozen characters, giving each a moment in the spotlight but only a select few the chance to grow depth or to change.

The scope of the book is also reflected in the science it portrays. While some areas are treated brilliantly (particularly methane clathrate, ocean currents, and Norway’s continental shelf), a rapid fire array of brief semi-scientific obsessions in the second half of the book have no where near the same accuracy or depth. Many of these are introduced as the deep sea sentience is revealed. A xenolinguist from SETI attempts contact, military trained dolphins make an appearance, chemical signalling, genetic memory and swarm intelligence are introduced through forced debate between the characters. These topics are boiled down and lack many of the most interesting insights from their fields, and the contrast between their superficial treatment and the exceptional discussion of other subjects left me wishing the book had been more focused. The most jarring of these are several short essays on religious philosophy and alien sentience, avoiding any serious attempt to address these subjects (and the rich field of debate on these topics in both academia and fiction).

The few areas where Schatzing digs deeper into source material are brilliant. Some of the most lovingly rendered scenes focus on whales as they unexpected turn against humans, their behaviour unpredictable and eventually deadly to the tourists and fishermen who cross their paths. The poetic detail with which these moments are rendered speaks to the author’s obvious love of whales and whale watchers, and his dismay at the environmental decline that is destroying them. Scenes of orca carnage are impossible to put down, and the facts scattered throughout the book speak volumes. Shatzing notes, for example, that PCBs and other bioaccumulating toxins are steadily rising in the blood of top predators, in defiance of bans on their use. Unless something changes, PCBs will begin causing orca populations to collapse in 30 to 50 years

Similarly, The Swarm’s scenes of mass urban destruction are brilliant, pouring out gorgeously rendered scenes of apocalyptic carnage that are fascinating and fantastically original. 

For brief moments, Schatzing entertains a very different window into his imagination, veering from the action and science to a much more poetic approach. In one case, he gives a ten-page treatment to the cycles of ocean currents, told as a meandering poem that reflects on a mind submerged in 1000 year long cycles. In another, he slips into  one character’s dreams and embraces a dark and magical landscape as a way to explore that character’s conflicts with his identity and with the mysterious entity in the deep ocean. In a book dominated by the science of cataclysm, these moments are deeply moving and give the book a weight it would not otherwise have. Take for example, this poetic and elegant passage in which Anawak (a protagonist), reflects on his ignorance of the challenges he is facing:

“He thought of the Arctic Ocean and imagined the unknown world below. He drifted until he came to the top of an iceberg that had been formed by a glacier in Greenland before the current had swept it towards the east coast of Bylot island, where it had frozen into position. Eventually the wind and waves had freed it and sent it further south. In his dream Anawak climbed a narrow snow-covered path to the summit of the iceberg. A lake of emerald-green meltwater had formed there. Everywhere he looked, he saw the smooth, blue sea. In time the iceberg would melt, sending him to the bottom of the calm water and the source of all life, where a puzzle waited to be solved”

As a whole, the Swarm is an enthralling and highly original work that carries through (most) of it’s 800 page bulk. The questions that it poses are some of the most important questions that we’ll collectively face over the next century, and Frank Schatzing has asked them openly and clearly.

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