Saturday, June 13, 2009


Where do I begin?

The Swarm was translated from the original German and copyrighted in 2006 to Sally-Ann Spencer, and published by Harper Collins the same year. The German version (Der Schwarm), by a human, was published in 2004 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch. This is a runaway #1 international bestseller, OK? It's about the war waged by the fish against the Naked Apes. I know many of you have read it already, with gaping eyes and slack jaws, but LET ME HAVE A CRACK AT IT ANYWAY.


>> Out of 898 pages, fewer than 50 are devoted to actual warfare waged upon the landlubbers by the denizens of the briny deep. I may actually be overestimating that number. I, personally, wanted to see some BLOODSHED. This book has virtually none. Even when we get to see a real confrontation -- a couple making out on the beach, oblivious as they are surrounded by an advancing army of eyeless moon-white Crabs, or a pod of Orcas joining with the nearby Humpbacks to advance on a boat full of unsuspecting Whale-watchers -- well -- NOTHING MUCH HAPPENS. Almost every human gets away, and the losses sustained are notably NOT VERY MUCH FUN.

>> As delighted as I am by the idea of a kamikaze Lobster loaded with toxic bacteria, infiltrating a four-star restaurant in Lyons so she can EXPLODE IN THE CHEF'S FACE, I have to admit I have MIXED FEELINGS. I mean, it's an adorable idea, but a terribly human one. AS IF WE WOULD EVER BE SO CRUDE. The honored crustacean never even made it to the dinner table, which means the potential for spreading the contamination is pretty minimal. And look who she killed! All those sneering French chefs ARE ALREADY ON OUR SIDE. And even if you assume this one chef isn't -- again, I would like a more graphic and horrifying exposition of the death throes, and I would like to see the medical examiner, then the entire hospital staff and every patient and visitor succumb, HORRIBLY, one by one. Maybe that's just me.

>>On the bright side, a chapter like this indicates that our quarry has NO IDEA WHAT WE ARE ACTUALLY UP TO.

>> The whole rest of the book -- at least 700 pages -- seems to be devoted to switching back and forth between different land-based cities where scientists -- cetologists, geologists, chemists, microbiologists, military strategists, a gal from SETI -- are essentially spending page after page of MY PRECIOUS TIME gazing anxiously into computer screens and saying things like, "The hydrates are dissociating!" and "I've never seen a Bristle Worm like it!" This is apparently intended to be the meaty part of the story. I know; THAT'S WHAT I SAID, TOO.

>> When they're not doing that, they're doing the usual monkey mating dance -- the cetologist with the tortured past casting a longing eye on the athletic science journalist with the auburn curls while his old nemesis, a Whale-privacy activist, is cozying up to the cetologist's most annoying female student. Typical of such novels, the women are either described as being of supermodel quality, or they are barely described at all. One comes away with the idea that this was the real point of the story, from the author's point of view. Elegant proof that he is NOT ONE OF US.

>> This story suffers on every page from a lack of what might be called reality testing. You can tell that this novel was translated for Brits, by a Brit. The supposedly American characters use painfully British phrases throughout, like describing the destruction of half a European nation by tsunami as "a spot of bother." (Now there was another scene that should have been terrific, but as it turned out was barely sketched out by the author. C'mon, people!) Let me tell you right now: an American describes a spot of bother as a tsunami, not the other way around, OK? And I have to point out that no American, especially not one in the military, pussyfoots around with the word "darn." We are treated to that word on every page, as if we were in kindergarten class. Even a character painted as completely obnoxious in every way uses the word "damn" only once before lapsing, for the balance of the book, into saying darned this and darned that for the next 750 pages, as if he were afraid of offending the dainty Marines all around him. None of this ultimately hurts the story, but it's so distracting! And by the way, Sally-Ann: THERE ARE NO GENERALS IN THE NAVY. WE CALL THEM ADMIRALS. Sheesh.

>> I did get a laugh out of the way the author characterized the American president: a Bible-thumping knucklehead who doesn't want to be bothered with any technical details. As long as the young, pretty, blue-eyed, Asian supermodel Navy general tells him it's all right, he figures it's all right. Now who could that have been based on?

>> The ultimate disappointment? They inevitably discover that the other species waging war in the story -- Whales, Crabs, Lobsters, Bristle Worms, Tuna -- are merely Prawns, I meant to say "pawns," under the control of a heretofore-unsuspected INTELLIGENT SPECIES. They will never understand that we don't WANT or NEED their intelligence. Fools! When the scientists agreed without discussion that any species capable of waging war on them MUST understand mathematics, seriously, I THOUGHT I WAS GONNA PUKE.

>> The characters make jokes throughout the story about Jody Foster in Contact because of the SETI specialist called in to communicate with the menace. So it was with a queasy lack of surprise that I realized they were going to have this story end like that one, with a hallucinatory encounter with the enemy that made NO SENSE AT ALL and magically ended with the Swarm backing off so everyone could live happily ever after.

I can't deny that this is entertaining in spots. I can see why some people would buy and read it quite avidly. But I'm NOT SURPRISED that our own operatives are less than thrilled.

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Blogger Ur-spo said...

I enjoy your book reviews.

7:35 AM  

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