"The White Plague" by Frank Herbert (1982)
"The White Plague" is a story of revenge. The protagonist, John O'Neill, is struck by tragedy while in Ireland, and decides to take revenge on terrorists everywhere by unleashing a plague. The plague targets only women, and has a catastrophic effect on populations worldwide.
It is one of the last books that Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, and it was published between "God Emperor of Dune" and "Heretics of Dune." It is also among the easiest of Herbert's non-Dune novels to locate. You're not likely to find "The Eyes of Heisenberg" in your local bookstore, but they probably have at least one copy of "The White Plague."
Which is a pity. Herbert wrote books much better than this one, and it saddens me that many people will judge him by this effort. As an attempt at "serious fiction" it is an abject failure, and even taken as a piece of genre writing it has some serious flaws. For the sake of brevity I will divide these flaws into three categories: causality, characterization, and length.
This is probably the biggest issue I have with this book. I could dismiss the characterization and length issues because, well, it's a Frank Herbert novel, but the causality issue cuts right to the core of why this book doesn't work.
Firstly, would the loss of your loved ones - however horrible it might be - prompt you to unleash a plague upon three different countries? Even if you had the wherewithal and had suffered a breakdown?
Secondly, would such a plague invite the wholesale destruction of entire countries through nuclear bombardment? Regardless of the obstacles involved in irradiating large sections of the globe? Wouldn't the radiation problem be just as worrisome as the plague?
Thirdly, would the provisional government of Ireland (many of whom are former members of the IRA) act upon their suspicions concerning the protagonist's true identity in so subtle a manner? Why not just torture him for the information they required? Don't they have a background in terrorism?
These three points are merely the most obvious in the book. There are also many others, each mediating against a suspension of disbelief. Obtuse discussions of genetics aside, Herbert really could have invested more thought into the basic structure of this book.
This a problem inherent in many of Herbert's novels: a lack of credible characterization. He can be quite brilliant when it comes to high-flown concepts and the scientific underpinnings of some ideas, yet when it comes to creating believable, consistent characters he often falls flat on his face.
In short, the guy just wasn't very good with emotions. He wasn't very good and portraying the inner worlds of his characters in a consistent manner. The characters in this book are all types, and most of them could be used interchangeably.
More fundamentally, the main character's psychology is less than credible. His schizophrenia is entirely too self-contained, and his reasons for doing things are baffling. For much of the book he struggles against this "other" inside him, but aside from frequent mention of this "other" he seems completely sane. Herbert also wastes the first chapters of the book by failing to give us a convincing portrait of his breakdown, and to explain the nature of this breakdown in terms that would have made "The White Plague" more compelling.
Exacerbating the above two issues is the question of length. I feel that Herbert was at his best when writing a book of around 200 pages, and anything longer than that - for him - was really pushing it. Many of the questions regarding both characterization and causality may be due to the fact that he was padding this book to make it either longer or more like "literature." Had this novel been edited down to 200 pages, it might have worked a lot better. Of course some of the problems with causality and characterization would have remained, but they would have been easier to excuse.
With all of the above stated, I can only conclude by saying that "The White Plague" is simply a boring, laboriously written book, and makes even Herbert's "Children of Dune" seem concise by comparison. Those, like me, working their way through Herbert's bibliography will read it anyway, but I would suggest that those less interested in his works avoid it.