Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of The White Plague by Frank Herbert

Review of The White Plague by Frank Herbert

The White PlagueThis book has been on my non-literal to-read list for quite some time, and, to be honest, I’m a little disappointed. Frank Herbert is, of course, one of the most important sf authors of the twentieth century, and Dune and the series it begat stands monolithic above everything else he wrote. But many of those other works are just as interesting – The Dragon in the Sea – his first novel – comes to mind. Others aren’t as interesting – The Green Brain was pretty crap, for instance.

In quality terms, The White Plague falls between those two extremes.

The opening chapter is probably the best part of the novel and sets the scene for the whole story (which was written in the early eighties). John O’Neill, an American molecular biologist doing research in Ireland for six months, sees his wife and two children killed in an IRA bombing. Devastated, he returns home and and starts working on a plan to deprive the Irish, British and Libyans (who, of course, supplied the IRA) of their women and children – he creates a virulent disease that is fatal to any woman who contracts it.

Before long, the plague – released initially in his target countries – spreads around the world, provoking drastic actions from mortally scared governments – whole swathes of land – and thousands of people – are bombed and put to the flame in order to create firewalls against the virus’s spread.

The novel has a large cast – there is O’Neill himself, an Irish biologist and his girlfriend who fortuitously manage to secure themselves in a pressure tank, there are a range of specialists assigned by nations to work on solutions, the American president, the Provo who set off the bomb, a broken priest, a psychotic Irish security chief … etc, etc. The chapters are generally very short and often time and events pass between the chapters, lending the story a certain disjointedness. I feel the story could easily have been a large trilogy instead of one large volume.

O’Neill’s trauma triggers the breakdown of his psyche – and it’s actually another part of his personality that does all the work for his revenge. Later in the story, he spends a long time in Ireland, travelling, unwittingly, with the man who killed his family. There’s a fair amount of the psychological exigencies and intricacies that characterise Herbert’s books, but somehow the effect here is diluted – perhaps because of the scale of the narrative and its condensed telling.

Overall, The White Plague is not without interest, but it’s not a highlight of Frank Herbert’s output.

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