I was doing some research for the final touch ups to my book. I needed the name of a book my heroine, Teresa, had bought in July 1980, precisely forty summers ago. I searched the internet for a familiar title, but nothing. Then I remembered my bookcase, where I keep many books from my youth. By an amazing coincidence, the first one I grabbed was The Swarm, by Arthur Herzog, a sci fi /terror book about the invasion of the US by a giant swarm of African killer bees. I always sign my books, adding he date of the day I buy them, and there it was: July 14, 1980. Bingo!
An old book
I happily wrote about the day when she bought the book, a day that became memorable for other reasons – if I’m making you curious just wait a few more months and the book will be out – and then decided to reread it. After all it had been a long time and these books are always a good distraction, taking your mind away from daily life and troubles.
Only this time it didn’t happen. The book is almost scary, prophesying a catastrophic situation quite similar to the one we find ourselves in.
The story is about bees, a usually harmless insect that has lived – and served – the human race for thousands of years, not only contributing to keep the balance of the ecosystems but also producing honey, that sweetest, golden syrup we all love. Of course, we know better than to get too close to a bee or we may get a sting, and it’s highly unadvisable to do like some greedy bears and attack a beehive to steal the honey, but apart from that bees are not the stuff of which nightmares are made – until you read this book.
We do know, however that bees – like ants – have a highly organised life system, where every individual knows, and serves, its exact purpose. In the book it’s compared to a totalitarian system, where the individual is sacrificed in the name of the whole, the collective, with a ruthless efficiency. As regards the queen – a worshipped, venerated, pampered being that, once she is no longer useful, is killed without pity by those who used to serve her.
Fiction or reality?
The story begins when a family who is picnicking on a warm Autumn day is attacked by a swarm. The parents are killed, and the three children survive, but the youngest and more severely injured eventually dies; the researchers discover that the venom that killed her is not the usual bee venom, but one much more sophisticated, incorporating traces of human chemicals.
Then it’s the usual stuff you can find in this sort of books and movies: the desperate fight between humanity and beast, and the catastrophic consequences.
Two things caught my attention as I was reading the book.
First, the reference, already in 1980, to climate change, and how global heating may cause mutations in insects and other living creatures. Not only this, but also their adaptation to chemicals used by man against them. As we have seen with antibiotics and bacteria in the last decades. Through an adaptation mechanism, they become resistant to the very weapons we use to destroy them, and when we become aware of it, they have become almost indestructible. Other mutations may occur, as in the case of these bees, such as a species becoming more aggressive than it ever was.
Forty years later, in the midst of a Climate Emergency, we have been witnessing many – too many – changes in animal behaviour that make a situation such as the one described in the book frighteningly possible, if not plausible.
The second has to do with the fragile balance of our society, and the conclusion that any major change in this balance comes with appalling consequences – as we are witnessing right now.
Reading about the consequences of the swarm attacks all over the US, and their imminent arrival at New York, I was appalled at how similar the situation is to the one caused by the new coronavirus: people fleeing the cities, shops and companies shutting down, field hospitals all over, people having to wear protective gear to walk outside, the authorities ordering people to stay home in order to protect themselves – does this ring a bell? It’s all there. Amazing how something written more than forty years ago seems to describe the reality we are facing. It’s only a different enemy, but the rest is very much the same.
Forty summers after
In the end, as in most of these stories, humankind triumphs, and the key to victory resides in a mutation that occurs inside the enemy hordes – ups, this is a spoiler! Forty summers after, we have spent months confined in our homes and are still fighting our – in this case – unseen enemy, by leaving our shoes outside the door, disinfecting and washing hands so often it makes our hands raw. That’s why I’m so happy we humans – or most of us anyway – do not have the gift of sight.
Yes. Had I been able to see, in a crystal ball of forty years ago, how similar the future would be to what is described in the book, I would probably have gone crazy with anxiety, and it would have poisoned my life. As it was, I enjoyed the book and put it away as a good distraction, and never gave it a thought again until a few days ago – throughly enjoying the good years ahead.
If you want to know how the story of The Swarm ends read the book. It’s available on Amazon. If you want to know the story of that girl who read the book back in the summer of 1984, read my book. I will let you know when it is available – on Amazon, too. Soon. I promise you it will be anything but scary.