Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

THE WHITE PLAGUE

A novel by Frank Herbert (1983, Berkley Science Fiction)

After losing his wife to Irish terrorists, an American man takes revenge by devising a fatal virus that targets only women.

 

 

+

Read December 27th, 2004 to January 9th, 2005 for the second time  
    Excellent characters, as expected, as well as some decent action and motivations, but the middle of the book takes too long, and I feel that it lost focus midway through.

Perhaps some of the minor characters get too much space, especially in the first pages of the book, where we learn all about the character just before he is killed. At many points in the book, we take time-out from the story to learn more about characters newly-introduced, whether they become major or minor ones. Fortunately, this does not detract from the story, because it is written is such a superb manner, that it feels like part of the story itself.

The character around which the story is centered is John O'Neill, whose wife and two children are killed in an IRA bomb in Dublin. He is a very interesting character as he foments his revenge, going so far into genetic engineering that he blazes a trail that can't be followed until late in the book. He tracks down gene sequences that determine the sex of a person, and tailors a virus to kill women. He then unleashes the virus on Ireland, for obvious reasons, in England, because they created the situation in Ireland, and in Libya, who apparently trained the IRA terrorists. Of course, the virus leaks out into the world, which makes a mess of things politically, and it even mutates into the animal kingdom.

I found it interesting that I could still feel sympathy for O'Neill after he had set the virus loose, and entered Ireland to observe it. At the same time, however, the hideous nature of the virus makes us yearn for his defeat at those trying to find out if they have the "Madman" in their midst or not.

If there is a real problem with this book, it comes from the extreme reactions of all the countries in the world. I suppose that extreme measures had to be taken to prevent the extinction of entire cultures, but as everything went further out of control, it began to strain credibility. Under this situation, which is far beyond anything the world has ever faced, the author can make governments and splinter groups do whatever they want. I was in some cases reminded of the devolution of society in the novel Dust, which has similarly incredulous behavior, which actually feels like fiction, making it out of place in the book. However, some of the actions taken here made enough realistic sense, sadly. Nuclear destruction of entire countries, burning people alive... I would not want to be on that decision-making team, but it's amazing how many people actually accepted it as necessary.

Part of the international response to this crisis was the formation of a team of scientists trying to come up with a cure. Beckett is the only one worth mentioning, an American who led the team through some cool ideas. Mostly, though, we get to see the political machine at its worst. I liked the idea of an international conspiracy of scientists, and was disappointed not to see it actually form, though if Beckett ever became President, he might be able to pull it off. For the most part, I liked Beckett, because he could hold his own against the politicians. He helped to meld the rest of the team after the women died. Some of the passages were quite technical, and I have no idea if they are anywhere near accurate.

The rest of the international stuff seemed like filler, put there to show us how the rest of the world coped while we dealt with O'Neill. I didn't think the Soviet Threat was really necessary -especially now that it doesn't hold up with time! There was also a heavy emphasis on Catholicism, from everybody. After the Pope was killed (nuclear bomb on Rome), the new Pope, an American, gets involved in politics, and is also killed, probably murdered.

The bulk of the book comes in the form of John O'Neill's trek across Ireland, which is supposed to show us that country's reaction to the crisis. I think it can be boiled down to "business as usual", except without the women. There is a harshness to the men that came to the forefront, though. Mostly, they seem just as dour as usual, largely philosophizing, in typical Frank Herbert fashion. Aside from rule by military, life goes on. But without the women, how long can it go on?

John's story can be divided into three parts, the first of which was the most interesting. Watching him Enact his revenge was a lot of fun, as a well-planned revenge (fictional, of course) usually is. The Observation stage was the longest, as he actually went to Ireland as John O'Donnell in order to make sure that Irish men were getting what they deserved. The last part, Searching for a cure, was the shortest, and felt like a denouement, even though it contained some of the most exciting parts of the book.

The party that intercepts John as he enters Ireland is composed of Joseph Herity, who was actually the one who detonated the bomb, Father Michael, who tries desperately to be a Good Person, and a boy who refuses to speak after probably watching his mother die an agonizing death. They trek across Ireland, observing John, as they think he might be the Madman, but don't want to be mistaken. John, for his part, goes along in an attempt to sabotage any efforts to find a cure. I found it long, though. Herity did little, almost nothing, to try and expose O'Neill. For the amount of information that we got, and the amount of stuff that happened -or rather, didn't happen- it certainly takes up a lot of pages. For the most part, they are enjoyable pages, however. There is a lot of meaning-of-life talk, with the few people they meet, and especially among John, Herity and the priest. I have some trouble believing that somebody tied to this party, from Gannon or the other farmers, to the guards around McCrae's castle of uninfected (but pregnant) women, would not try to murder O'Neill out of revenge, even if they were not certain it was him. Most people, especially with a mob mentality, would not realize his worth, or even care about it, after he killed their loved ones.

There were, of course, sudden jumps of realization, which I resignedly recalled from Herbert's other books, most notably Children of Dune. John only realizes through suspicions that Herity is searching for O'Neill, something he didn't know before passing McCrae's place. Why? There was no reason to suspect that he wasn't just being suspicious of John because of the suspicious circumstances of his arrival, not to mention that he was American. Similarly, Father Michael's faith in God and the church was suddenly restored in Dublin. Even John says he doesn't know how that happened, and neither am I.

I couldn't believe how much people in this book, most notably the Irish, held on to their prejudices after this kind of disaster. After the tsunamis relief efforts I've seen over the last two weeks, it's hard to see the people keeping to their old hatreds. But perhaps that's because only one portion of the world was affected; put the whole planet in that situation, and the reaction might be very different.

John's sudden reversal of motives, however, was well-done. He was so intent on his revenge, believing that only the three countries of his wrath would be affected, that he never looked at the bigger picture. When faced with the extinction of humanity, and the mutations into the animal kingdom, he had no choice but to help. I did not see any effect of the silent boy on him, no matter how much the author says so.

Politics and trust have been obviously exaggerated in this book, to give us more drama. Maybe it's realistic, as I said above, but all of the power plays go against (or at least reduce the chances of) finding a cure. Maybe I'm too idealistic, but all of the people involved were unreasonable; maybe those are the people who seize chances to become powerful. What was the point of killing the UN Secretary General, so late in the story? The UN had way more power than was believable, but maybe it was more optimistic when the book was written.

The power plays culminate when one of the Irish leaders, a fanatic and IRA member, takes over the research complex, with the intention of putting O'Neill on trial, and seizing the only accessible Irish woman, Kate, who was sealed in a high-pressure tank in the early days of the plague. He has a history of cruel rape of the infected women he found along the Irish coast, and doesn't care if he will infect her, too -she would be his to control for the days that she survived. Kate only became a central character very late in the book, though she and her husband-to-be Stephen were introduced very early on. I liked their harrowing escape from Ireland to England, though their baby was probably born too easily on the crossing (even if premature). I especially liked the dock workers and the other tradesmen. They were very realistic, with no dreams of power or spite. They did their best to keep Kate from harm and from the virus.

The end of the book, after the cure is distributed, is something that I had trouble with, as did all of the men who still had living spouses. With so many women dead, the world had about 10000 men for every woman! This means that women were no longer free, that they were returned to being property and precious commodities, probably to be locked up so that no harm came to them. They suddenly took multiple husbands, in order to preserve genetic diversity, which makes a lot of sense, with new genetic engineering to ensure that nearly all babies born are female. But I don't blame the husbands for not accepting it well. How the religious communities, especially non-Christians, would react to men taking women's last names is fairly straightforward, but the way in which it is written makes it seem more like "shock value", because the obvious way to do things is as in Quebec, where spouses keep their own last names, and they decide which name their children will take (including the possibility of hyphenation).

The world is a different place than it was when this book was written, socially and technologically. Computers are presented as being not widely accessible. There is, of course, no internet. Both of these would have made both the creation of the plague and the cure much easier. The cure, especially, would probably have come about much quicker, and the dream of an international science community is much closer to reality now than ever. I find it interesting that the Chinese found a cure, independently and without O'Neill's help, at the same time. Also, when the cure was found, it was secreted out of the facility and communicated around the world, to keep it out of political hands.

My memories of this book from the first time reading it, so many years ago, were rather sketchy, and even re-reading it didn't bring recollections. I recall the genetic sampling John did at the school inoculations, the fact that money was used to spread the plague, O'Neill trying to infect McCrae's women (though in reality he never got even remotely close enough, much farther away than I remembered), those women being pregnant, and Beckett's wife telling him that he would still be her Primary husband, in the new system of marriage. In reality, these are the most noteworthy parts of the novel.

The new order is that of the United Nations, which is really the only thing holding the world together. Their laws are now enforced. I've always thought this was a good thing, but with such radically different cultures throughout the world, I don't think one law is all that good, after all. I wondered how much of the previous American President's idea of a new space initiative would be carried out; his idea of creating more "baskets" to hold humanity's "eggs" is a very good one.

First and foremost, this is a character novel. John ends up being schizophrenic, his O'Donnell personality nearly overwhelming the O'Neill one. His penance, after confession, was to find a cure. After that, O'Neill re-emerges, and goes crazy, running across Ireland as a ghost, a legend that will probably live forever in their future.

The book was also about technology, to some extent. Some people think it is a bad thing, but with the information that O'Neill provided them, just by creating such a virus, they would be able to wipe out so many diseases, and extend the human lifespan a hundred-fold. Those are the science fiction ideas.

The book was enjoyable, but it did have its problems. It was worth reading a second time, however, though it didn't quite live up to the memory of the first time.

 

 

4 stars

Also read February 7th to March 17th, 1989  
   

Back to Top

All reviews and page designs at this site Copyright (c)  by Warren Dunn, all rights reserved.