Frank Herbert's The White Plague, A Dystopian Novel

Molecular biologist John Roe O'Neill is on vacation in Ireland when a bomb explodes and kills his wife and two children. The trauma splits his personality and he splices genes into viruses and contaminates bacteria with them, creating a disease that targets women and speeds up their aging. When he releases the bacteria in Ireland, England and Libya, the plague begins to spread around the world and governments have to close their border and expel these countries' nationals. And Barrier Command under Canadian Admiral Francois Delacourt seeks to isolate the plague by patrolling borders and controlling travel among countries. As women begin to die off, the U.N. gathers a group of scientists from the U.S., France and U.S.S.R. to find a cure. In the meantime, O'Neill sneaks into Ireland as John O'Donnell only to be captured by the IRA-controlled government and tried for genocide. The politicians of the U.S., England and Ireland manipulate one another to come up with the cure while trying to gain an upper hand.

When the scientists, with the help of O'Neill's insights, find a cure, they are able to spread the knowledge without allowing any government to gain an upper hand. But with only one woman for every tens of thousands of men, women begin taking on more than one husband. And with greater knowledge about genetic engineering, scientists are able to assure female newborns. But that knowledge also allows potential terrorists to engineer a plethora of deadly diseases. Welcome to the brave new world as Frank Herbert imagined it.

Gene Splicing (Drawing by Agathman)

The White Plague is a thoughtful exploration of the abuse of genetic engineering and it consequences. We do not read it for its science but the details of gene splicing, science and pseudo-science, make the reading interesting and I prefer this to science fiction without the science. The plague and the resulting apocalypse reveal more the darkness of the human soul than the failings of science and Herbert's discourse on political machination among the U.N., the U.S., England and Ireland--combined with the IRA's bombing and O'Neill's vindictiveness--reaffirms this theme. And Kevin O'Donnell and Herity are the epitomes of that darkness.

South Kildare, Ireland

Herbert's constant shift from one character's point of view to another's distracts from the story. (At times, there are multiple shifts in POV within a page.) We have trouble sympathizing with any single character though we dwell mostly in O'Neill's mind and may be ambivalent about him, an innocent bystander turned into a mad scientist turned into a schizophrenic. Perhaps the shifting points of view reflect the disintegrating world of the white plague and we aren't meant to focus on any single character or sympathize with him or her.

Frank Herbert

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