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 “I’ve had a rude awakening. So simple. We are destroying our homeland”


Known for both his best-selling novels such as The Storm – a book that has sold more than 4.5 million copies to date and been translated into 27 languages worldwide – and also increasingly for his in-depth and insightful environmental non-fiction work, German author Frank Schätzing is a publishing sensation on a mission.


That mission is encapsulated in his latest book What if we Just Saved the World?, a meticulously researched non-fiction book delivered with his trademark storytelling panache. Schätzing said he felt compelled to invest years researching and writing this particular book.


“I’ve had a rude awakening. So simple. We are destroying our homeland. When awareness of the global sustainable transformation finally grew – largely thanks to the young climate movement, by the way – Corona came along. Now the Ukraine war. But the fact is, man-made climate change is and remains the greatest existential threat to our species,” Schätzing said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival.


“For most of our history, we have adapted to the planet. There were more resources than people. Now we are trying to make the planet adapt to us. There have long been more people than resources. We are overextending our livelihoods and squandering the dividends of millions of years, oil, coal, gas, that Mother Nature has sort of saved for us, saying, ‘Share it.’ But we are like children when there is chocolate. Everything is eaten. In the process, we blow eons of stored CO2 into the atmosphere within a few decades. We are causing irreversible damage to our world.


“So I had the feeling that I had to do something. And I have to do it in such a way that readers don’t feel lectured, but entertained. I am a storyteller. That’s how I approach non-fiction. I tell the story of our being here, our past, our future. The more gripping I do it, the greater the chance that someone will listen to me. I don’t want to scare anyone away, but to captivate people, to win their attention, their support. There is nothing more exciting than the Netflix series we live in: reality. In reality, everyone can be a hero,” he said.


The Swarm (Der Schwarm), published in China by PostWave in 2018, is a science fiction horror thriller that also has a strong environmental theme, depicting the seas and their inhabitants unleashing a violent revolution against mankind. Schätzing said he was taken aback by just how successful the book became, and continues to be 18 years after it was first published.


“To be honest, the huge success of the book came as a complete surprise. Of course, I had bet on it winning. But I’d never have believed that it would become a world bestseller. The readers loved it, the critics were surprised. None of them had expected such a novel by a German author. They were so flabbergasted that even in the distinguished feuilleton there were almost only good reviews. Some slurs, too, but overall it seemed as if everyone had been waiting for this book.


“Looking back, I guess it was just the right novel at the right time. Any market research institute would have strongly advised me not to write it. Intelligent single-celled organisms threatening humanity! Too disturbing, too strange, too scientific. But that’s exactly why it was a success: because it was new and unexpected. People love the familiar, but they also want to be surprised. The Swarm was a madcap adventure story, a science fiction horror thriller, a reminder to deal better with our world, it had many facets. You couldn’t label it. This made people curious,” he said.


The success of the book has been in ways life-changing for Schätzing, he said. “I have remained the same person I always was, and yet it has radically changed my life. It has given me the freedom to follow my imagination, to develop my creativity in any direction. The Swarm is more popular than ever today. In a way, it has become my shadow.”


Frank Doegler, executive producer and director of Game of Thrones, is currently working on TV adaption of The Swarm. Schätzing worked with him on it for about a year, then withdrew from the project for various reasons. “I don’t have the slightest idea what they shot and I’m excited to see the result next year,” he said.


The second book of Schätzing’s that is currently available in Chinese translation is Nachrichten aus einem unbekannten Universum: Eine Zeitreise durch die Meere, also published by PostWave. A non-fiction title it uses the style of a thriller novel and is full of humour to detail 4.5 billion years of marine history. It is often referred to as an accompanying non-fiction title to The Swarm.


“You can read it before or after The Swarm, it doesn’t matter. I had done an enormous amount of research for The Swarm and was well versed in the subject. More and more often people asked me how much in Swarm was actually made up and what was factual. So I thought, write a little booklet that answers the questions. 50, 60 pages. But I had so much unpublished research material, and while working I suddenly felt like writing a complete history of marine evolution. That’s how it can work. I then carefully acquainted my publisher with the fact that the book would be ten times as thick as planned,” he said.


Researching and writing such a detailed book was both a mammoth task and also a gigantic pleasure, Schätzing said.


“I did my research as usual: I read everything I could get my hands on, specialist books, scientific publications. I researched on the internet. That wasn’t as productive back then as it is today. When I wrote The Swarm, there was no YouTube, Facebook or Instagram. I had to resort to other sources, and the best source is experts. So I interview experts as often as I can,” he said.


Schätzing argues science fiction plays a role in shaping our imaginations and stirring our collective social consciousness as it can playfully show different paths and aberrations. And science fiction often proves to be more accurate than so-called serious forecasts and scenarios, he said.


“Forecasts assume that in 20 or 50 years people will want more or less what we want today. This is where our imagination reaches its limits. It is true that we can develop technologies for tomorrow. But we cannot think and feel about them as tomorrow’s people will. The basis of our assumptions about what future inhabitants want remains our canon of values of the present. As a result, politicians, researchers, industrialists and societies in general attach too much importance to today’s models of thought and need. In retrospect, our visions of the future often turn out to be naïve because they were too rooted in the thinking of the time. This also happens to many science fiction writers. But the best science fiction writers have this ability to put themselves into the thinking of future people. They are allowed to go any way they want mentally. As a result, science often expands our imagination more than scientists and politicians,” he said.


In terms of offering aspiring writers any advice, Schätzing said every writer has different experiences along the way that shape them, and finds different sources of inspiration.


“We are all shaped by role models to whom we refer in our work. In the process, we try to find our own path. I cannot advise writers on which role models to follow, nor which personal path to follow. My only advice is: never try to write something you think people might like. Be uncompromising. All great artists owe their fame to their uncompromising nature. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn. We all learn all the time and become better because of it. But an artist should never try to please others. Art must be authentic. That would be my advice. And maybe: hope for everything and expect nothing. Be prepared to fail. Only then can you be truly creative” he said.


At the upcoming 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Frank Schätzing will join Chen Qiufan, in conversation with literary translator Li Shuangzhi, to discuss their work, their writing lives, and the topic “Visions for our Future: What if we Just Save the World?”.