Frank Herbert, author of the best-selling Dune series, is primarily known as a writer of science fiction. In The White Plague, he mixes genres; taking off from a science-fiction premise, he employs the conventions of the thriller to engage the reader while he delivers opinions on a wide range of topical issues, from the civil conflict in Northern Ireland to the godlike powers of modern science.
The novel’s thriller plot is set in motion when John Roe O’Neill, an American of Irish descent and a world-class molecular biologist, witnesses the wanton killing of his wife and children as an IRA-planted car-bomb explodes in Dublin. Maddened with grief at the senseless killing of his family, O’Neill creates a deadly virus which has the effect of killing virtually all the women on earth.
This science-fiction device serves Herbert well: “What would happen if. . . ?” he asks, and then proceeds to suggest several answers—few of them reassuring. Riots ensue, great areas of various countries are cordoned off to prevent the spread of the virus, and near-anarchy reigns in many areas of the world. Some renascent Luddite antiscientism results in the killing of scientists, for O’Neill has sent several public letters admitting his responsibility for the plague. World powers intrigue to be the first to find a cure for the plague; vast research facilities are made available, and the reader can follow the threads of the investigation as Herbert’s narrative shuttles from Ireland to Washington to England and back.
Herbert has done his homework well, and his explanations both of O’Neill’s creation of the virus and of the frantic attempts to counteract its baleful effects are generally easy to follow. When the language becomes highly technical, Herbert always has a layman on hand to insist on explanations in one-syllable words. For all the hard science (and the science-fiction gimmicks) in The White Plague, the novel is essentially a speculative consideration of many areas of contemporary life. John Roe O’Neill is a rather conventional “mad scientist,” but Herbert makes his motivations believable. Later, as O’Neill, calling himself John O’Donnell, wanders through the center of Ireland so he himself can witness, even glory in, the devastation he has wrought, the reader feels a kind of pity for the crazed scientist. This central portion of the novel is particularly well done. O’Donnell-O’Neill is joined in his wanderings by Joseph Herity, the IRA terrorist who triggered the bomb that killed O’Neill’s family; a horror-struck old...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)