The Swarm (Schätzing novel)

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The Swarm
The swarm us cover.jpg
US cover.
AuthorFrank Schätzing
Original titleDer Schwarm
TranslatorSally-Ann Spencer
GenreScience Fiction
PublisherRegan Books
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
833/.914 22
LC ClassPT2680.A79 S3813 2006

The Swarm (German: Der Schwarm) is a science fiction novel by German author Frank Schätzing. It was first published in Germany and Austria in 2004 and soon became a bestseller.


The book follows an ensemble of protagonists who are investigating what at first appear to be freak events related to the world's oceans. The book has several sub-plots and will occasionally follow minor unrelated characters to illustrate how events unfold around the globe.

Sigur Johanson, a marine biologist working at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is asked to analyze a new species of marine worms, superficially related to Hesiocaeca methanicola. After several expeditions it becomes clear that the worms, together with bacteria, are destabilizing the methane clathrate in the continental shelf. When the continental slope collapses the subterranean landslide causes a tsunami that hits most of the North Sea's coasts, killing millions and severely damaging the infrastructure in the coastal regions.

At the same time Leon Anawak, a marine scientist who investigates the behavior of whales and works for a whale watching company, makes startling observations in the whales' behavior; and is called to investigate an incident where whales and sea-borne mussels seemed to have attacked and incapacitated a commercial freighter.

When he returns to his whale watching job, he witnesses how humpback whales and orcas attack the watcher's boats. The whales work together to capsize the boats and then kill the people drifting in the water.

These events are part of a worldwide phenomenon. Several other attacks are briefly described in the plot: swimmers are driven from the coast by sharks and venomous jellyfish; commercial ships are attacked and sometimes destroyed; France sees an outbreak of an epidemic caused by lobsters contaminated with a highly lethal type of Pfiesteria.

When it becomes clear that all those events are related, an international scientific task force is created under the lead of the United States, led by Lieutenant General Judith Li, a close friend and adviser to the President; the protagonists become part of it.

While the task force is in session, the attacks on humanity continue: the North American east coast is overrun by Pfiesteria-infested crabs that attack New York City, Washington D.C., and later Boston, causing millions of deaths and rendering the affected cities uninhabitable. The Gulf Stream has also ceased to exist, an event that may initiate a global climate change that would threaten human civilization.

Sigur Johanson finally announces his hypothesis: the phenomena are intentional attacks by an unknown sentient species from the depths of the oceans; he states that this is the only logical conclusion, since the attacks are outside the power of any human agency and cannot be a natural phenomenon. Johanson calls them "yrr", after three letters he typed randomly on his computer. The goal of the yrr is to eliminate the human race, which is devastating the Earth's oceans.

General Li and a small group of scientists take to the sea on the helicopter carrier USS Independence in an attempt to find the yrr and make contact with them. They discover that the yrr are single-cell organisms that operate in groups (swarms), controlled by a single hive-mind that may have existed for hundreds of millions of years. The yrr form a collective intelligence and have inheritable memories that are passed on by manipulating parts of their DNA. Individual yrr recognize each other by using a specific pheromone.

The scientists have some success in investigating the yrr and make limited contact. The attacks do not cease, however. Sigur Johanson also finds out that General Li has not been honest with them. One of the scientists has been working on a modified pheromone to eradicate the yrr completely. Johanson disagrees with this approach because the elimination of the yrr may completely destroy the marine ecosystem and thus the human race.

Li, however, is unwilling to accept that dominance over the Earth may not be a God-given birthright of mankind, and the United States in particular. She will rather take the risk than allow the US power to wane. While she gives orders to have Johanson killed, the ship is attacked and crippled by the yrr and a final showdown ensues on the sinking Independence.

Li races for the ship's DeepFlight midget submarines with two torpedoes containing the modified pheromone. The scientists are trying to stop her and at the same time implement their own plan to save humanity. She is stopped at the last moment by Johanson who gives his own life to detonate the torpedoes and kill Li.

Karen Weaver, a scientific journalist, then manages to get hold of the last surviving submarine and dives into the depth of the oceans. There she releases a dead human pumped full of the yrr's natural pheromone, hoping to trigger an "emotional" response. This works and the yrr cease their attacks on humanity.

The epilogue reveals that a year later, mankind is still recovering from the conflict with the swarm. The knowledge that humans are not the only intelligent lifeform on Earth has plunged most religious groups into chaos, while parts of the world still suffer from the epidemic the yrr sent to destroy the threat to their marine homeland. Humanity now faces the difficult task of rebuilding their society and industry without coming into conflict with the ever-watching superpower under the sea again.[1]

Themes and motives[edit]

The story touches various topics, including the destruction and poisoning of the marine ecosystems on earth, the importance of the sea for humanity and the coexistence of different species. The book also remarks on the human inability to thoroughly understand "alien" life; it speculates on the philosophical and religious consequence that the discovery of another sentient species on Earth may have.

The novel borrows some ideas from the Gaia Theory. It hits on the notion that mankind's activities have created conditions that begin to affect a delicate equilibrium of biotic and abiotic conditions that have fostered and sustained complex life forms and ecosystems.

Publication history[edit]

The Swarm was a number-one-bestseller for eight months in Germany and has been translated into 18 languages.[2] It was lauded by many critics and readers for its accurate representation of marine biology, geology, and geophysics.

Use of real life persons[edit]

Four characters from the novel actually exist and were written into it by Schätzing as thanks for answering his questions on the scientific background: Gerhard Bohrmann [de] and Heiko Sahling are geologists at the University of Bremen, while Erwin Suess [de] is a marine biologist and professor at the University of Kiel. John Ford is a marine biologist in British Columbia and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.

The character of Samantha Crowe is strongly based on SETI director Jill Tarter, who was also the main inspiration for Jodie Foster's character Ellie Arroway in Contact.

Claims of plagiarism[edit]

Thomas Orthmann, a German marine biologist and journalist, claims that dozens of passages in The Swarm have been lifted word for word from his writings. He is demanding compensation from Schätzing. Schätzing refuses to pay any compensation, but has agreed to acknowledge Dr Orthmann in the next edition of The Swarm.[3]

Film adaptation[edit]

Hollywood actress and producer Uma Thurman and the German producers Michael Souvignier, Ica Souvignier and Till Grönemeyer [4] bought the film rights to The Swarm in May 2006. On May 9, 2007, it was announced that a film based on the novel was in the works. Ted Tally has finished writing the screenplay and Dino De Laurentiis was to be one of the prime financial benefactors of the project. The release date was estimated to be 2015, but as of 2018 the film was still in development.[5][6]

Boardgame adaptation[edit]

Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have designed a board game based on the book, published originally by Kosmos and in English by Z-Man Games.[7] Each player represents a nation competing in attempts to communicate with The Swarm, and the winner is determined as the most successful researcher.


  1. ^ Schätzing, Frank: The Swarm. (New York) ReganBooks, 2006
  2. ^ "Top Movie Blog". Archived from the original on 2008-04-19. Retrieved 2008-08-15.
  3. ^ "Author of Bestseller The Swarm Stung By Claims of Plagiarism". Archived from the original on 2007-05-19. Retrieved 2007-02-24.
  4. ^ Eco-Disaster Book 'The Swarm' Getting Adapted
  5. ^ IMDb page
  6. ^ Schatzing's 'Swarm' takes film form - Entertainment News, Film News, Media - Variety
  7. ^ "The Swarm" boardgame Archived 2010-11-29 at the Wayback Machine from Z-Man Games