Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: 'The Swarm' by Arthur Herzog

4/5 Stars

During the early 70s there was considerable alarm (or, depending on how one looks at it, sensationalizing) in the mass media over the forthcoming advent of ‘Africanized’ or ‘killer’ honeybees to the US. This strain of bees had been introduced to Brazil in 1957 and had displaced the native bee population en route to expanding over much of that country. Throughout the succeeding decades the Africans had advanced northwards to occupy Central America, and it appeared that before the 70s ended they were likely to colonize the southern US.

The Africans are better at honey production than native bees, which pleases beekeepers; however, the Africans are also more aggressive in defending their hive and thus more likely to sting (hence the nickname ‘killer’ bees).

‘The Swarm’, which takes as its premise a catastrophic invasion of the US by killer bees, was therefore very timely when it appeared in hard cover in 1974. This Signet paperback edition was published in 1975; the cover features an ominous illustration of bees with glaring yellow eyes and protruding stingers (the artist is uncredited).

‘The Swarm’ appears to have been author Herzog’s first fiction book, and he wisely chose to emulate the Michael Crichton approach towards writing it by adopting a detached, documentary-like prose style and leavening the text with graphs, instrument readouts, computer-drawn maps, and other realistic-looking, ‘scientific’ graphics. The book takes place entirely in the present tense; there few flashback sequences; extended monologues and soliloquies are absent; and the narrative is made to unfold in an unadorned and fast-paced manner.

The hero of the story is an environmental scientist in Washington DC named John Wood, who is the first to recognize that a report of a fatal bee attack in upstate New York is something out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, Wood is unsuccessful in getting his administrators at the National Academy of Sciences to share his trepidation. It’s only when further bee attack reports appear in the media that Wood is allowed to carry out a deeper investigation, which reveals that African bees have in fact colonized the US. But these Africans are not just ‘ordinary’ killer bees; they are a race of mutants, physically larger, able to sting multiple times without dying (unlike ‘normal’ honeybees), and to make matters worse, they have succeeded in incorporating a toxin into their venom that makes them a ‘one sting, one kill’ adversary.

Following the revelation of the African presence, it’s a race between Wood and his colleagues to come up with strategies to limit the spread of the bees before they expand their range from their isolated bastions in the rural areas to the nation at large. As with Crichton’s ‘Wildfire’ program in ‘The Andromeda Strain’, the scientists in ‘The Swarm’ set up their own research facility in a covert government installation, and much of the narrative in the novel’s middle sections revolves around the researching of methods to combat the bees. The situation becomes critical when the bees begin to reproduce at an accelerated rate, and the prospect of enormous swarms of bees emerging from the woods to invade the cities becomes disturbingly real. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it’s clear that the battle between Man and Bee will be a take-no-prisoners affair, and victory over the insects is by no means certain….

Arthur Herzog wrote a number of successful thrillers with an SF basis (‘Earthsound’, ‘Heat’, ‘IQ83’) throughout the 70s and 80s. In recent years he has expanded his topics to mysteries, some humorous novels, and even a how-to book: ‘How to Write Almost Anything Better and Faster !

‘The Swarm’ is a well-written SF thriller that, like Crichton’s work, both informs and entertains the reader. The underpinning science is stretched a bit for dramatic purposes, but never becomes too contrived or otherworldly. The narratives moves quickly, with chapters short and to the point; remarks on ecological and environmental issues are inserted when relevant, but never subject the reader to tedious hectoring or preaching.

How well did ‘The Swarm’ foretell the future ? Well, it was not until 1990 that a colony of African bees was detected in Texas, but by 2008 they had been reported from across the South. Severe, sometimes fatal attacks by African bees are now a fact of life in Arizona, Florida, and southern California. One of the more disturbing features about the African honeybee incidents is the large number of stings (100 is not unusual) delivered to the hapless victims.

There is some uncertainty as to whether the African bees will continue to advance northwards into the Midwest or middle Atlantic regions, or be deterred by the colder climate. Only time will tell….

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