The White Plague by Frank Herbert
I adored Frank Herbert’s Dune. The epic scope, the nobility, and especially the Fremen caught my attention just so when I was fifteen. When I saw that The White Plague, also by Herbert, dealt with the consequences of a plague that wiped out most women, I was intrigued. It’s a fascinating concept, and I thought I would be in good hands with Herbert. I was terribly disappointed.
In The White Plague, John Roe O’Neill’s world is shattered when an IRA bomb kills his wife and children on a visit to Ireland. Driven mad by their deaths, O’Neill, a brilliant molecular scientist, unleashes a plague upon the world that wipes out most of the women on the face of the Earth. As world leaders struggle to find a way to deal with the devastating effects, Ireland moves ahead in the search for the cure. But O’Neill has no intention of letting them curb his revenge…
While this premise is intriguing, the plot tends to ignore the reality of a lack of women in favor of hard science and clunky politics. The too few glimpses of the human toll are striking, particularly an old man who doesn’t wash his hand-knit sweater because it was the last thing his deceased wife touched. These wonderful moments are glossed over in a favor of a manly tramp across Ireland and other male dominated arenas. Because of this, we rarely feel the absence of women, which I feel should be central to a story like this–their absence contributes to the horror.
This failing is also due to the pacing. It’s typical thriller pacing–short chapters that switch between the various plots. These plots and subplots are so diverse and lacking in female characters that we often go chapters without feeling the loss of women. Herbert also has a weird habit of not making up for time passed in one plot in other plots. One chapter follows O’Neill before he writes several threatening letters, after a few chapters follow characters receiving those letters. It makes the timeline jumpy and disjointed.
The entire cast is broadly sketched, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a thriller with a large cast. But here, it is, combined with how unsympathetic they are. Our nominal protagonist, O’Neill, is one of your villains, and we’re not given a hero to oppose him until very late in the novel. The female characters are also lacking–the only interesting one, a giantess scientist, dies very early, and the lone female representative for the whole novel is a sniffling mess who is supposed to be strong. It’s just not very flattering or compelling.
It’s not that Herbert doesn’t write well; his vocabulary is very well used and there is some lovely imagery. But it’s not so good that it overcomes all the other flaws.
Bottom line: In keeping the reader from feeling the absence of women, The White Plague fails its intriguing premise. Add to that the broadly painted and unsympathetic cast and stuttering pace, and The White Plague is a definite miss.
I rented this book from the public library.