Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review of "The White Plague" by Frank Herbert

Dune and its sequels got me through some hard times. In the midst of a painful breakup, I was lifted out of my funk by the words of fictional characters. A great deal of the series revolves around change and not being afraid of it. The books showed me how gripping the past leads to stagnation worse than any disruption caused by change. The action sequeneces make great film, as shown by the various adaptations, but they miss that the books are as much intellectual discussion as plot. The characters are more philosophical ideas than real people. Through author Frank Herbert's words, I was able to begin living again. It also set the stage for my future Discordianism.

It was with exitement that I found an old hardcover edition of The White Plague in an unlikely small-town bookstore in Perdue, Saskatchewan. It was his first non-Dune writing that I had found. Also, being a traditional Irish musician, the setting in Ireland was a plus. As I removed to irritating book jacket and settled into bed to read, I was hyped.

The action begins as the family of biochemist John Roe O'Neill is killed by an IRA bomb while on vacation. O'Neill's marbles go astray, he goes into hiding and manufactures a new plague which he releases into Ireland, England and Libya to scour those sinful countries clean. The world's women begin dying and the political and scientific elite scramble to find a cure.

Unfortunately, this beginning is a stumble rather than a leap. The narrator's viewpoint, in third-person, is unsettled and constantly switches between the perspectives of the characters. For myself, I didn't like it much. I found the constant switching between characters' thoughts to be disorienting rather than interesting. It also seemed to be cheating: rather than allowing the reader to guess a character's thoughts by their words and actions, Herbert just tells us. Yet, and perhaps Herbert meant this to be clever, there is still much mystery surrounding the motivations of characters. People just do things sometimes, and despite the amount of perspective switching, I had no idea why they were doing it and no amount of recollection or re-reading could reveal the mystery.

Luckily, after this opening face-flop, the story dusts itself off and gets going again. I became used to the perspective switching and during the plot's second act, I was able to enjoy myself. John Roe O'Neill, after a period of sneaking around the planet, returns to Ireland incognito to sabotage the efforts for a cure. There, he falls into the company of Father Michael: a priest who has lost his faith, Joseph Herity: the IRA operative who set the bomb that killed O'Neill's family, and a mute boy. They travel towards the biochemistry lab at Killaloe, across the island, and witness the devastation of the plague.

It was here that I found the Frank Herbert that I knew so well. For as the companions journey, they engage in philosophical discussion. Their intellectual discourse raises tempers as Father Michael and Herity try to destroy each others' psyches and secretly discover if their companion is O'Neill.

The problem is that this time, Herbert's philosophic and scientific discussions didn't work. In Dune, his characters are the intellectual elite of the universe and it makes sense that they speak on a level higher than average discourse. However, in The White Plague, everybody is a philosopher-historian and has something profound to say. Herity and Michael's sparring, in particular, is disconcerting as they are constantly becoming furious with each other for reasons which can only be described as esoteric. It is obvious that these are not characters but intellectual ideas and it is silly as often as it is enlightening.

In the end, The White Plague is a simple story dressed in fancy clothes. Nothing really unexpected happens and when it does, the reasons why it happens are confusing. Nevertheless, Herbert manages to paint an interesting picture of what might happen to our society if the full potential of biochemistry were unlocked, suddenly, on an unsuspecting public.
2 stirrings of O'Neill-within out of 5

ps: I've once again proved false the theory that one must like any book they've read from cover to cover. Ha.