The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert has the semi-misfortune to be one of those people like da Vinci or Soundgarden, who created something so monstrously famous that, despite the high quality of their remaining body of work, nobody seems to know about anything else. Herbert is synonymous with Dune, rightly considered a classic, if not the classic, work of epic philosophical science fiction and one that holds up to this day without seeming dated or quaint. But even leaving aside the uniformly excellent and increasingly weird series of sequels (there are five and only five, despite the efforts of well-meaning son Brian Herbert and incompetent hack Kevin J. Anderson to suck every last drop of milk out of the Atreides teat), Herbert the Elder has a strong and diverse body of work in which the speculative fiction aficionado can happy immerse him/her/myself. The White Plague is such a semi-overlooked classic.
Like in his Hellstrom’s Hive (a future subject for this column), Herbert sets this story in the present day (i.e. the early 80s), but unlike in Hive he doesn’t need to tweak the actual world to create the setting he wants. Irish-American geneticist John Roe O’Neill is in Dublin to present his research, along with his wife and twin children, when an IRA bomb obliterates everything dear to him in a single moment. O’Neill snaps under the strain, and he creates and unleashes a virulent new disease that is uniformly and quickly fatal, but only to women, releasing it in Ireland (for condoning the violence), England (for giving the Irish a reason), and Libya (for training the bombers). So far nothing particularly groundbreaking about the plot, but all of that is covered in the first 50 pages or so, leaving 90% of the book for what Herbert does best: ruminations on the reactions of the people and institutions in power to situations beyond their imagination or control. Unlike a lesser writer who would focus on the details of the spread of the disease and the methods used to combat it (I’m looking at you, Tom Clancy), Herbert paints the spread of the plague with broad strokes, mentioned almost as asides by the scientists, politicians, and clergymen that he instead chooses to follow. Despite O’Neill’s threatening letters, nobody takes him seriously until it is far too late to contain the spread, and the scale of the devastation his work creates is rivaled only by the scale of the devastation caused by the world’s response. Entire cities and regions are obliterated, either nuked or put to the Panic Fire, while politicians try desperately to hold things together and scientists work feverishly to identify and then counteract the work of The Madman, as O’Neill comes to be known.
Much of the book is devoted to a travelogue of sorts, as O’Neill returns to Ireland under an assumed name and walks through Ireland incognito observing the fruits of his labors, accompanied by a priest, an orphaned boy, and the man whose bomb killed O’Neill’s family. There follows a quietly desperate game of cat-and-mouse as the powers that be, not being idiots, suspect O’Neill’s presence but fear revealing their suspicions either to him (for fear of additional plagues) or to the rest of the world (who would probably reduce Ireland to a radioactive sheet of glass in order to kill him). Herbert uses the conversations held during this journey to rumination on guilt, fatalism, and the endless cycle of vengeance. It’s a slow burn, leading up to a finale that is literally insane.
Because The White Plague was both written and set in the 1980s, some of its technobabble does seem dated and quaint, but it detracts none from the story because the story is only tangentially about the plague and how to fight it. Instead Herbert sticks to his strengths, leaving the tech as a framing device and instead focusing on the world’s large-scale reaction and the small-scale people caught up in it. The POV chapters with the world’s (formerly) most powerful men play almost like a montage, glimpses into the aftermaths of the terrible decisions they are forced into, where entire countries are written off as lost causes while underlings bicker over venal grudges, unwilling or unable to realize that pre-Plague politics have become meaningless. The book is chilling to read and even more so to contemplate after the fact, as the reader is forced to consider the ephemeralness of political power and how much said power depends on the ability to do violence on a scale sufficient to catch the enemy’s attention; when the people you threaten are no longer impressed, what do you do? How far will you go to maintain control?
The White Plague is no Dune, but it never tries to be. It abandons the future for the present, the bombastic for the bleak, and the epic for the intensely personal. O’Neill is one of the more interestingly conflicted antiheroes that I have run across; he’s done monstrous evil, yet even in Ireland they still manage some sympathy for what pushed him over the edge. I recommend this book without reservation, especially if you are one for whom the name Frank Herbert conjures up only heat, sand, and the cinnamon smell of Spice.