Friday, December 13, 2013
Reviewed by OFW editor:
Carlos J Cortes
Published: February 15, 2014
I chose to review Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm, to debunk a myth about the publishing industry; namely, that novels must have a certain length if an unknown writer wants a shot at publication. While it’s true that Mr. Schätzing wasn’t unpublished, the historical
Tod und Teufel
in 1995, and his thriller
in 2000, were inconsequential and didn’t sell well.
Before revisiting the genesis of The Swarm, perhaps a few statistics can pave the way to appreciate Schätzing’s coup. There are about one billion people out there capable of reading in English at different levels of proficiency, or ten times more than those who can read in German (about 100,000).
The Swarm was a number-one-bestseller for eight months in Germany, where it sold two million copies, and has been translated into 18 languages. Two-million copies in German is mind-boggling, or the equivalent of 20 million in English, since he managed to reach 2% of German readers.
Undaunted by his earlier flops, Schätzing hit agents and publishers with a 500,000-word manuscript. After a few rejections, a German publisher grabbed it and suggested a little paring down. Schätzing removed about one-fifth, and delivered a 400,000-word manuscript that would eventually go into print.
This very long disaster yarn—881 small-type, close-printed pages in the Sally-Ann Spencer Hodder’s English translation—is essentially Hitchcock’s 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!”
The Swarm was lauded by critics and readers for its accurate representation of marine biology, geology, and geophysics, although the plot borrows several ideas from the Gaia Theory. It hits on the notion that mankind's activities have created conditions that affect the delicate equilibrium of biotic and abiotic conditions that have fostered and sustained complex life forms and ecosystems.
I was impressed by his research and command of science, but it seems I was a little optimistic in my appreciation. Thomas Orthmann, a German marine biologist and journalist, claims that dozens of passages in The Swarm had been lifted word for word from his writings. From what I hear, the matter is in the German Courts of Justice. Good luck.
The plot goes something like this: A malign deep-sea intelligence wages war on mankind. Worms chew ocean bed substrate and release enormous quantities of noxious gas; mussels clog ships rudders; lobsters explode in restaurants, crabs advance onto the beaches in huge numbers. It takes a
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. Schätzing has artlessly larded the narrative with vast amounts of regurgitated marine research—either in gear-grinding descriptive passages or else in yawn-flirting dialogue.
It's a novel of great length but almost no density. More, the great length works against the main function of a thriller by slowing everything down to a plod. The bulk of the novel is a kind of chaff, designed to distract the reader from what would—in a shorter story—be a weak plot with cardboard characters.
Otherwise, the book is weakly written. It feels like the sort of novel an intelligent but shy and geeky thirteen-year-old might concoct.
While the writer has assembled the tropes of disaster novels in a thought-provoking manner, I had a great deal of difficulty maintaining interest. There are a few suspenseful sequences, but these are far outweighed by the rest.
Some reviewers have claimed that that Schätzing is Dan Brown for people with brains.
Unfortunately, this is not praise for Schätzing but a sarcastic reflection about how bad Mr. Brown really is.
Yet, regardless of its many deficiencies, the book has served to hoist Mr. Schätzing to the dizzying heights from where a writer can churn out anything and sell in huge numbers.
His new release, Limit, is almost twice the size of The Swarm (no kidding) at 1,300 pages and 26 euro for the paperback version (that’s over thirty bucks). I hear that it has outsold Dan Brown, but it doesn't seem to have been translated into English yet.
(Limit cover here)
Limit is set in 2025. Its earthly locations are Shanghai, Berlin, and a few others; but much of the action takes place on a colonized Moon, where Julian Orley, a distinctly Richard-Bransonish entrepreneur, gives his VIP guests a preview of an unprecedented space tourism experience. Orley has also set up a massive and successful mining operation on the Moon to extract helium-3 from lunar regolith, largely solving our dependence on terrestrial fossil fuels and leaving the world’s oil companies to scramble for an alliance with him or wither and die. Things, of course, will go wrong; but I won’t spoil them for you, just in case you want to brave the latest Schätzing doorstopper.
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