Although best known for his Dune series, Frank Herbert’s 1982 book The White Plague may be just what the doctor ordered these days.
In a nutshell, Dr. John Roe O’Neill, an American biophysicist visiting Ireland on a research grant, witnesses his wife and twin sons killed from an IRA bombing. To say he “loses it” would be a serious understatement. The first chapter opens with an ancient Irish curse—“May the hearthstone of hell be his bed rest forever”—and Herbert delivers fully on this hex from there.
O’Neill returns to the states, isolated and vengeful, and decides that since a political cause took his wife and children from him, he would reciprocate. Designing a genetic virus that does not affect men but kills females, he adopts the name “The Madman,” releasing his biological scourge on the world by infecting low denomination bills.
Once released, the plague destroys the world in short order, causing whole nations to collapse, even forcing the Vatican to relocate to Philadelphia. As the world descends further into self-isolated tribes killing anyone approaching, Scotland Yard conducts its hunt for “The Madman.”
However, this is not simply the story of investigators trying to locate and capture The Madman. That is there, of course, but there is much more.
Like Thomas Mann’s allegorical Magic Mountain—where he uses a tuberculosis sanitarium as a vehicle for examining European nations on the edge of World War I, Herbert uses this book as a means to study nations and their peculiarities. It also offers the author an opportunity to study people’s reactions to the direst of situations as well as their use and pursuit of power.
At fewer than 500 pages, The White Plague offers a much more restrained analysis of such behavior as is seen in the massive Dune series.
The White Plague by Frank Herbert. 1982.
Reviewer bio: Bill Cushing writes and facilitates a writing group for 9 Bridges. His poetry collection, A Former Life, was released last year by Finishing Line Press.