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I discovered Frank Schätzing’sThe Swarm‘ recently by accident. I’ve never read sci-fi / speculative fiction written in German before and so decided to read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story starts with the disappearance of fishermen in the coast of Chile. Then whales start attacking people at the Canadian coast, something which is unheard of. Strange eyeless crabs invade multiple cities in the U.S. A lobster ends up in a restaurant kitchen in France, and it is infected with something strange and the chef who is trying to cook it dies. This leads to further infection and an epidemic. In the North sea, at the place where the Norwegian oil wells are, strange worms start appearing near the wells. This last thing leads to a big disaster as the continental collapses there leading to a huge tsunami. Scientists investigate these strange happenings, initially separately, and then together. They suspect that all these strange happenings arise from a common cause. Then the stunning truth is suspected and revealed and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I loved the science part of the book. Frank Schätzing has done his research well and the science part of the story is very impressive – we can learn a lot about oceanography, continental shelves, the different kinds of waves, the origin of tsunamis, deep sea exploration, whales and other deep sea beings, oil drilling in the deep, the technology involved in all this. I learnt a lot about all these while reading the book. It was almost like reading Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’, in which the nonfiction part outweighs the fiction part of the book. The speculative part of the book, especially the main hypothesis, is very interesting. I can’t tell you what it is, in case you plan to read the book. The story is interesting and makes us want to turn the page to find out what happens next. In a book of this size, the pace is uneven as one would expect, and some parts of the story move faster than the others. Frank Schätzing’s prose is functional and workmanlike, as could be expected in a plot-based novel and moves the story nicely along. But occasionally, once in a hundred pages, there is a beautiful passage. Schätzing is German, after all. He can’t just keep writing plain vanilla prose. The romance parts of the book are very unconvincing and laughable though 😄 Clearly, writing romance scenes is not Schätzing’s thing 😄

One curious thing I noticed towards the end of the book, after all the revelations, was that nearly all the bad guys in the story were Americans. It was almost as if, Frank Schätzing had said to himself – “I’m tired of all the thrillers written in the last 70 years, in which the bad guy is German (or Russian or East European), while the good guy is American who comes and saves the world. I want to change this. I want to write a novel in which all the bad guys are Americans.” Then he went and wrote this 1000-page novel. One can almost imagine him, receiving the first copy of this book, after it had been printed, and thumping it on his writing desk and saying “Take that!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I thought about this 😆

I enjoyed reading ‘The Swarm‘. I wouldn’t say that I loved it, but I definitely liked it. I rarely read 1000-page novels. I’ve read only a handful of them in my life. I can count them in one hand. It is not like I don’t like 1000-page chunksters. I love them and I buy them and start reading them but give up halfway through. My home is filled with half-read 1000-page chunksters. So, I was pretty proud of myself when I finished this book. I hesitated to pick it initially, because of its size, but it was so tempting that I couldn’t resist it any longer, and I decided to dip my toe in and see how it went. I’m happy to report that five days later, I’ve finished reading this book. I discovered another book by Frank Schätzing which is even longer. He seems to be the German Neal Stephenson, specializing in chunksters. It is safe to say that I won’t be picking up another Frank Schätzing book anytime soon 😊 But I’m glad I read this one.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“At sea the world was just water and sky, with little to tell them apart. There were no visual markers, which meant that on clear days, the sense of infinity could suck you into space, and when it was wet, you never knew if you were on the surface or somewhere beneath it. Even hardened sailors found the monotony of constant rain depressing. The horizon dimmed as dark waves merged with banks of thick grey cloud, robbing the universe of light, shape and hope in a vision of desolation.”

“Time was of no importance on the land, where the routines and patterns of cities and settlements ceased to exist. Distances weren’t measured in kilometres or miles but in days. Two days to this place, and half a day to that. It was no help to know that it was fifty kilometres to your destination, if the route was filled with obstacles like pack ice or crevasses. Nature had no respect for human plans. The next second could be fraught with imponderables, so people lived for the present. The land followed its own rhythm, and the Inuit submitted to it. Thousands of years as nomads had taught them that that was the way to gain mastery. Through the first half of the twentieth century they had continued to roam the land freely, and decades later the nomadic lifestyle still suited them better than being confined to one place by a house.”

“Research shows that human beings are incapable of discerning intelligence beyond a certain micro- or meta- threshold. For us to perceive intelligence, it has to fit within our behavioural framework. If we were to encounter intelligence operating outside that framework – on a micro- level, for instance – we would fail to see it. Similarly, if we were to come into contact with a far higher intelligence, a mind vastly superior to our own, we would see only chaos, as its reasoning would elude us. Decisions taken by a higher instance of intelligence would prove inscrutable to our intellect, having been made within parameters beyond the reach of human understanding. Imagine a dog’s view of us. To the dog, a person appears not as a mind, but as a force to be obeyed. From its perspective, human behaviour is arbitrary: our actions are based on considerations that canine perception fails to grasp. It follows therefore that, should God exist, we would be incapable of recognising him or her as an intelligent being, since divine thought would encompass a totality of factors too complex for us to comprehend. Consequently, God would appear as a force of chaos, and therefore scarcely the entity that we would like to see governing the outcome of a football match, let alone a war. A being of that kind would exist beyond the limits of human perception. And that in turn prompts the question as to whether the meta- being God would be capable of perceiving intelligence on the sub- level of the human. Maybe we are an experiment in a petridish after all . . .”

Have you read ‘The Swarm‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. At this time, I somehow found myself in front of the shelf which had science fiction books. I found a selection of interesting titles under a collection that the publisher Gollancz had brought out. I sat down in front of the shelf and carefully read the blurb of each of the Gollancz books. Two of them appealed to me and I ended up getting one of them. It was ‘I Am Legend’. Yesterday, I thought that after reading Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, I will read one more book as part of my Halloween reads, and so I picked up ‘I Am Legend’. I finished reading it today.

Before I get into the review, a few words on Gollancz. Gollancz was one of my favourite publishers when I was younger. The Gollancz logo was quite beautiful – it was a multi-pointed star –  and a Gollancz book had a distinctive look – the pages were thick, the font was old-fashioned and it was a pleasure to hold the book, smell the fragrance of the pages and read the old-fashioned font. Unfortunately, Gollancz is no more what it was – it is owned by Hachette now – and from a publishing company, it has been reduced to an imprint. Fortunately, the attractions of a Gollancz book are still there – the multi-pointed star logo still adorns a Gollancz book and the pages are still made of thick paper 🙂 It is sad that these days most of the books that anyone reads in English are published either by Penguin, Random House, Harper Collins or Hachette – atleast the ones I read. Whatever happened to all those small and medium-sized publishers? Do we really want the publishing industry to be so oligarchic?

Now to the review of the book 🙂

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the back cover of the book.

A SF novel about vampires…

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.

How long can one man survive like this?

What I think

I found ‘I Am Legend’ quite interesting. Though the book is about vampires it was published under a science fiction collection, and so I was curious to know how the two genres were blended in the book.

To continue the story in the summary, Robert Neville battles for survival in a world with two species – vampires and humans – with him alone representing the human-side. The vampires try to get at him by night, while he hunts vampires during day. Then he uses reason and tries to find a scientific explanation for the vampiric behaviour of people. He stumbles upon some secrets then. Then he chances upon a real live dog and he is delighted. Then, more surprisingly, he accidentally meets a human being who is alive. He is thrilled. The surprising events which ensue and the twists and turns they go through form the rest of the story.

I liked the way Richard Matheson has blended elements of horror, vampire themes and science fiction in his story. To bring a scientific logic into vampirism was something entirely new and unique. I don’t think anyone had done it before him. With his unique perspective, I think he has changed the way we look at vampires. Of course, this change comes with a cost. Vampires in this book are no longer scary as they were in the early vampire novels like ‘Dracula’. But there are twists and turns in the story which bring the scary element in. The ending of the story is quite interesting and brings out a new perspective to the way we look at things.

‘I Am Legend’ has been adapted to the big screen many times – most recently it was made into a movie starring Will Smith. I am hoping to see one of the adaptations.

I also read in Wikipedia that Richard Matheson’s novel has the same theme as that of Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’. I found that quite intriguing. I can’t wait to read Mary Shelley’s book now. 

Excerpts

 I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book (contains spoilers).

Time the healer

He had no idea how long he’d been there. After a while, though, even the deepest sorrow faltered, even the most penetrating despair lost its scalpel edge. The flagellant’s curse, he thought, to grow inured even to the whip.

The number two

      His unkempt hair rustled on the pillow as he looked toward the clock. Two in the morning. Two days since he’d buried her. Two eyes looking at the clock, two ears picking up the hum of its electric chronology, two lips pressed together, two hands lying on the bed.

      He tried to rid himself of the concept, but everything in the world seemed suddenly to have dropped into a pit of duality, victim to a system of twos. Two people dead, two beds in the room, two hearts that…

      His chest filled with night air, held, then pushed it out and sank abruptly. Two days, two hands, two eyes, two legs, two feet…

Intense hope and monotony

      After the first few weeks of building up intense hope about the dog, it had slowly dawned on him that intense hope was not the answer and never had been. In a world of monotonous horror there could be no salvation in wild dreaming. Horror he had adjusted to. But monotony was the greater obstacle, and he realized it now, understood it at long last. And understanding it seemed to give him a sort of quite peace, a sense of having spread all the cards on his mental table, examined them, and settled conclusively on the desired hand.

      Burying the dog had not been the agony he had supposed it would be. In a way, it was almost like burying threadbare hopes and false excitements. From that day on he learned to accept the dungeon he existed in, neither seeking to escape with sudden derring-do nor beating his pate bloody on its walls.

      And thus resigned, he returned to work.

Hollywood ending and reality

      Simplicity had departed; the dream had faded into disturbing complexity. There had been no wondrous embrace, no magic words spoken. Beyond her name he had got nothing from her. Getting her to the house had been a battle. Getting her to enter had been even worse. She had cried and begged him not to kill her. No matter what he said to her, she kept crying and begging. He had visualized something on the order of a Hollywood production; stars in their eyes, entering the house, arms about each other, fade-out. Instead he had been forced to tug and cajole and argue and scold while she held back. The entrance had been less than romantic. He had to drag her in.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘I Am Legend’. Richard Matheson is an interesting new discovery for me and I am hoping to explore more of his books.

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I stumbled upon ‘We’ by John Dickinson by accident, when I was browsing at the bookshop last week. I read the blurb on the back cover and found it quite interesting. I decided to get the book. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

In the furthest, coldest, darkest reaches of our solar system, Paul Munro is on a mission from which he can never return. A desolate ice-covered moon will be his home for the rest of his life. and only from here can he see what humanity has become.

A thriller to freeze your blood.
To absolute zero.


What I think

To add a little bit more to the summary above, ‘We’ depicts a time on earth, when networking technologies like the mobile phone and the internet are integrated and social networks are sophisticated and people keep in touch through their networks. It is also a time when there are manned space stations elsewhere in the solar system, where scientists are sent on permanent missions to do research. Our hero, Paul Munro, is sent to one such manned station, which is on a moon of a planet in the outer edges of the solar system. He is sent there to replace another scientist who has died, and to also investigate a communication problem. How the relationship between Paul Munro and the other members of the space station evolves, and what secrets he discovers form the rest of the story.

I liked ‘We’. The setting was authentic and very real – when the book describes a world which is networked and people not speaking much but using their networks to communicate, it looks eerily like our own world a decade or so from now. The description of the scientific elements of the story is also very authentic, from what I know. The plot wasn’t sharp enough to my liking – not many twists and turns and though there is some suspense it doesn’t really come as a big surprise (atleast to me). But inspite of all that, I liked the book, because the story was interesting, it kept my attention engaged and the setting looked so real.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite lines from the book.

The doctor’s eyes focused. He bent to look closely. His face wore the detached concern of one who knew he would never suffer as the person before him was suffering. His pupils tracked.
‘It is Tears,’ translated the Talker. ‘Just Tears. They are…’
She hesitated. The information the doctor was giving her had far outpaced her ability to put it into speech.
‘They are normal,’ she said.
It was not a good choice of word. Tears were not normal. None of them could remember crying. But it was the best she could do.

In his darkness he could hear a voice saying something. It was a woman’s voice.
There was something strange about the words. They were like nothing he had heard in his training classes. They were drawn out, and some of them changed in pitch as they were uttered. There was music in them. Of course he remembered music. There had been days when he had set it to run through his head continuously. He had not heard it made from a human throat before, because there were better and easier ways of doing it. But he knew it was possible. There was a word for it.
The woman was ‘singing’.

She stopped and looked at the floor. He knew what she was doing. It was something he did himself, all the time now. She was hunting for words.

Her words sank inside him, turning and turning like objects falling into deep water, bumping into nothing. Nothing would stop their descent until they rested on the muddy floor of his soul.

The silence after he broke the link was like a corpse tumbling gently in a low gravity field.

There was no way that a computer program could be made to suffer. But at least he would have confused it.

Final Thoughts

I have to say that this is an odd thing – by some quirk of fate, I haven’t read many science fiction novels. If I discount the Jules Verne novels and the stories by H.G.Wells, I have read just five science fiction novels – one by Isaac Asimov (‘Foundation’), two by Arthur Clarke (‘Rendezvous with Rama’ and ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘) and one by Ursula Le Guin (‘The Lathe of Heaven‘). I don’t know why I haven’t read more, because I like science fiction and have enjoyed watching science fiction movies. I enjoyed reading ‘We’ too. I think I will use this as an inspiration to read more science fiction in the future.

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