Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Frank Schätzing, The Swarm (2004)

I'd heard that Frank Schätzing is one of the biggest names in contemporary German SF, and decided to investigate a little further. His latest, Limit (2009), has outsold even Dan Brown, apparently; but it doesn't seem to have been translated into English. So instead I read his previous, The Swarm, in Sally-Ann Spencer's Hodder translation.

This very long disaster yarn (881 small-type, close-printed pages in the English) is essentially The Birds with marine life instead of birds. At one point Schätzing even has a character say 'it's like a deep-sea version of The Birds!', presumably in an attempt to innoculate the book against the reader going 'but this is just a deep-sea version of The Birds!' Didn't stop me, though. About halfway through -- and according to internet translation sites the German for spoiler is Räuber [hmm: or is that cars? note: turns out (see comment) it means 'robber', and the German for spoiler is, um, spoiler] --- it turns into The Kraken Wakes, with the twist that the malign deep sea intelligences waging war on mankind are native rather than alien. Worms chew oceanbed substrate and release enormous quantities of noxious gas; mussels clog ships rudders; lobsters explode in restaurants (no! really!), crabs advance onto the beaches in huge numbers. It takes an awfully long time to get where it's going; and where it's going is neither earth-shattering, nor mind-blowing.

The most striking thing about The Swarm is just how prodigiously infodumpy it is. Enormous quantities of regurgitated marine research are artlessly deposited onto the narrative either in gear-grinding descriptive passages ('Eddie switched on the six external floodlights. The four 150-watt quartz halogen bulbs and the two 400watt HMI lights combined to bathe an area twenty-five metres in radius in a pool of glistening light' 323), or else in yawn-flirting dialogue of the 'what do you know about X?' 'I know Y.' 'Very good, but you also need to know Z, A and B' variety.

'The worm is methanotrophic. It lives symbiotically with the bacteria that break down methane. ... You see, depending on the isotope -- you do know what an isotope is?'

'Any two or more atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number but with differing atomic mass.'

'Ten out of ten! So, take carbon. It doesn't always have the same atomic mass. You can have carbon-12 or carbon-13.' [77]

It's a novel of great length but almost no density, a combination that gives it something of the texture of extruded polystyrene. More, the great length works against the main function of a thriller (which is to say: thrills) by slowing everything down to a plod. There's one place, though one only, where form and function come together, and where the novel lifts itself out of its nerdily relentless groove ... or more precisely: one place where the nerdily relentless groove enhances rather than detracts from the effect: midstory a tsunami is described from inception to devestating passage over densely populated coasts. The unavoidable, irresistible force of this agent of natural destruction is well rendered. Otherwise the book is very weakly written. It feels like the sort of novel a highly intelligent but shy and geeky thirteen-year-old might perpetrate.

It's possible that the huge length of this novel is, as it were, gratuitous; but I tend to think that there is reason behind Schätzing's laboriousness. This bulk is a kind of chaff, designed to distract the reader from what would, in a shorter story, be revealed as risible: for the central conceit here (and, again, Räuber!) is beyond stupid, viz. that mankind evolved on this planet alongside a second, superintelligent, tool-using, native form of life, amœboid in form, which, despite global reach, a group memory millions of years old, and intimate interaction with the human sphere nobody has ever noticed before, and which, after centuries of human pollution of the oceans, chooses this moment to make itself known in an attempt at speciecide. The Swarm is probably a better title than When Superintelligent Oceanic Amœbae Attack! But the latter would have been more honest.


Rainer Skupsch said...

I can only hope I am not to blame for your wasting your time with "The Swarm". I do not know the book myself, but I think my reaction to it would be similar to yours. I started reading "Limit" (over 1300 pages!) the other day and gave up after the 40-page-prologue because every single sentence looked either ugly, sterile, or dead. (I am praying nobody will put it on the shortlist of a certain German SF award, since I would have to read the book in that case - oh Lord, please have mercy on me.)
Regarding spoilers and Räuber: the only meaning of the word 'Räuber' I am aware of is simply 'robber'. We use the English word 'spoiler' in two different contexts: first, to describe this thingamajig on top of car boots that is supposed to improve those vehicles' aerodynamic qualities, and, secondly, whenever we want to warn our readers we are going to talk in detail about a book's plot. (Oops, so I guess I have just stated in many words that we use the word 'spoiler' the same way that you do in Britain?)

All the best for 2010, Rainer Skupsch

Adam Roberts said...

Actually, Rainer, a Germanist colleague in the RHUL Modern Languages department was telling me about the enormous commercial success of Limit.

Thank you for enlarging my knowledge of German. Any more instances of German simply reusing English words, let me know; once I'm up to a working vocabulary of, say, 300 words, I'll consider myself fluent and may set about translating Limit myself.

Adam Roberts said...

(I am, for instance, guessing that the English for Limit, as he uses it in the title of his novel, is ... Limit. Am I right?)

Rainer Skupsch said...

Wow, you are absolutely right! How on earth did you guess that?????

Just one more remark about adopting anglicisms into our language: the German word for "mobile phone" is "Handy", and whenever we use the noun "City", we are really referring to the centre of a town/city - just two examples to demonstrate we do not usually know what we are doing when dealing with foreign languages.

Joerg said...

Last Sunday I visited a reading of 'Limit' with Frank Schätzing. It was huge. It took place in Mannheim's "Rosengarten", which is a grand Art Noveau festival hall. It is used as a congress centre for key international scientific conventions, political party conferences, and for elegant balls, or live concert performances by international stars such as Anne-Sophie Mutter, or Simply Red. And now? Frank Schätzing, German SF-author??

Ticket prices ranged from 18 to 89 Euro, more then 1000 people attended, it was sold out. Same as before in Weimar, where he started his tour.

Schätzing did not simply read from his book. It was more like a multimedia literature opera: when he was reading parts of his work from a kindle reader he walked from one end of the stage to the other like a rockstar. A orchestral space soundtrack swept through in our ears. Film sequenzes of the moon's surface bought from National Geographic were screened. "News" from the year 2025 about Helium 3 as a substitute for fossile fuels were shown and we got informed about the new US-President A. Schwarzenegger -simple kind of humor.

Sometimes Schätzing fought staged poetological discussions with metaleptical figures of his text (played by well-known german actors).

Schaetzing ran an advertising agency befor he published books, and yes he did a great job that evening. If the quality of his writing would be as good as his show, I would have bought his book immediately. But, hmmm hmmm, I am not going to read this book. 1300 pages is over my personal limit, and Schätzing is no Dante or Joyce, whose works have a similar lengths but with much more poetical qualities in it.

Nevertheless, it was interesting as a new kind of 'literatainment'.

Here is a foto taken shortly before the start.

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