White Plague, The by Herbert, Frank, 1982

White Plague, The by Herbert, Frank - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Frank Herbert's The White Plague is almost an end of the world novel. This time, however, the threat is from a man-made plague virus that attacks and kills only females with an absolute 100% mortality rate. The man who made it, an American ex-pat in Ireland named John Roe O'Day, did so in an unexplainable fit of selfishness and rage after watching the virtual liquification of his beloved wife and twin children by an IRA made bomb carefully secreted into the trunk of a patsy's car. As smoothly written and thought provoking as this book is, I give it three out of five stars, with reductions for a lack of serious global focus, failure to explain with any clarity not why, but how O'Day could have committed such an unbalanced act of revenge (other than a what appears to be a dissociative disorder, and a bit of mania when he did the scientific work), for butchering Irish history and folklore, and, mostly, for wrapping things up so tightly and quickly at the end of the book.

The bulk of this story is told during a forced march of sorts. After loosing his engineered plague on Ireland, the UK and Lybia (the three countires O'Day blames for The Troubles in Ireland - Lybia for providing training to the IRA) O'Day leaves the USA and goes to France with the intent of going on to Ireland. His purpose in going into the belly of the beast is to falsely offer his services as a scientist to the Irish to aid them in devising a cure for the Plague, which has already cut a wide swath across the whole of the British Isles while secretly trying to undermine any effort to devise a cure. He is almost killed first by the UN Barrier Patrol set up around the islands, then by a roving group of "Beach Boys," who meet boatloads of Irish ex-pats forced back home by foreign governments afraid of O'Day releasing the Plague in their nations. The Beach Boys regularly rape and kill whoever lands, but O'Day is spared by a rising Irish terrorist/politician named O'Donnell. O'Donnell's men recognize O'Day, who is now travelling under the name of John O'Donnell (and assumption of a familial relationship at first may guide O'Donnell's hand as well), and send him on foot to Dublin to the lab in the company of Herity (who set and ignited the bomb that killed O'Day's family), a priest and a mute boy. Herity's job was to take O'Day the longest way possible and gather evidence to prove that he is O'Day, as the Americans were refusing to send copies of O'Day's dental records and fingerprints, fearing that once it became known where O'Day was the Russians would immediately nuke that spot, thus eliminating any chance to use O'Day, who had made significant strides in genetic recombination to devise the Plague in the first place. The priest was Herrity's foil; both had recenlty lost their faith in God, Herrity's never to return. But the priest was on a quest for the return of his own faith. He was also sent should O'Day, a Catholic, ever feel the need to confess. The boy, whose mother was a Plague victim, was placed there to show O'Day the true cost of what loosing the Plague had done. Near the end of the journey O'Day does indeed confess to the priest, and the priest breaks the vow of the confessional when Herrity and O'Donnell threaten the boy's life. O'Day is put on "trial," in a hearing rigged result in O'Day's death.

The action in this book is pretty intense in some parts. But there are more than a few places in the novel where Herbert's reluctance to describe what is going on in the character's minds really leave some gaping holes. For example, in addition to the above, in the end the priest and the boy both decide to aid O'Day in an escape, but we are never really told why. It can be assumed that the priest may have done his Christian duty, and there is also a suggestion that care of the insane is every good Irishman's duty, but the explanation is never anything but fuzzy. Furthermore, O'Day spends most of the book inhabiting a split personality named O'Donnell so as to never have to face what it was he did, and in the end reverts back to O'Day and goes truly mad, but Herbert never tells us how he got through the work and planning and the release of the Plague as O'Day in the first place. These holes certainly raise questions, but the themes Herbert examines in the book really take center stage and overpower the action anyway. Readers cannot tell with certainty if Herbert is telling an end of the world story about a madman bent on revenge, if he is stabbing at the Irish and giving them a literary dose of what he thinks they deserve for allowing such bloody terrorism in their own nation, if he is railing against the Irish for the stereotypical "Irish Luck," or the inability to do anything but fail, if he is decrying the evils of scientific discovery unchecked with wisdom, if he is spouting off on the theme of smaller governements being better for people than large ones (which pops up from time to time in his work and interviews), or possibly taking a shot at women for something as blameless as original sin. Whatever the reason, this is where Herbert really shines with this novel. Even if he fails to completely explore all of these ideas, he at least has his characters discuss them in meaningful ways that add greatly to the richness of the book.

MEMORABLE QUOTES:

This book has two that stood out to me and made me laugh. The first is a chapter epigraph on p. 160, which reads as follows:

When all the tourists had gone off for the day, we used to piss on the Blarney Stone. It gave us a strange feeling of superiority when we saw toursits kissing that place where we had seen our own piss, and it splashing off so pretty and yellow.

- Stepehn Browder

The second took place during the trial of O'Day. According to an old Irish law, three judges were required. O'Donnell, the chief judge, was a bit of a murdering madman himself, and threatened just about everyone he came across in the book, including Herrity, him making up the second of the three judges sitting in judgment of O'Day. Herrity was drinking from a bottle of whiskey during the hearing. O'Donnell had poisoned the bottle before the hearing started. Herrity, who can ordinarliy drink like a fish and show no effect or drunkeness, speaks first:

"M-m-me legs! Th-they d-d-d-don't w-w-work!"

Abruptly, Herity's head head lolled to the right. His mouth was opened. He gasped once and was still.

Peard darted out from the side and mounted the platform. He pressed a hand against Herity's neck, looked up at (O'Donnell), then "He's dead!"

"I knew the drink would get him eventually, (O'Donnell) said. "Well, leave him be. The triumvirate is still present."

Overall this was a pretty good book with some very bright spots, and some gaping holes. The one other issue Herbert really missed was the limitless potential of genetic recombination and DNA manipulation. Throughout the book it looked as if he were setting up a post-human scenario, but fell woefully short of that as he quickly and neatly tried to end the story on a high note. If you can find this book, which is finally in print again, get it and give it a read.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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