Monday, January 2, 2006

The White Plague, Frank Herbert

The White Plague
Frank Herbert

I first read The White Plague by Frank Herbert back in 1988 or '89. I had started a new job at a very strange company - one where I had no real friendships, and where any social interaction I got came from outside the company. My coworkers were brilliant people, but their lifestyle was not like mine. They'd come to the US from France to start a company. They hung out together, and did nothing but work. The company was located in downtown Palo Alto, and I took to reading on my lunch break as a way to relieve the monotony of sitting in front of my computer all day with no other breaks at all and no one to talk with about anything. Palo Alto had (and may still have) some used bookstores, and I found this book in one of them.

Picking it up to reread it, something like 18 years later, I didn't remember much about the book except that I thought it was both amazing and frightening when I first read it. I wondered if it would hold up to that standard now, or if there was something about me or my environment that made it stand out so much.

I'm glad to report it is still a good book, but I must admit it wasn't as great as I remembered it.

Of the plot, I will say basically what is on the back cover - it won't count as a spoiler. An American biochemist has his wife and children killed in a bombing in Ireland. He takes his revenge by creating a disease that kills only women and releasing it there, among other places. It's set in the "now" of the early 1980's. The Berlin Wall hasn't come down, the Soviet Union still exists, and computers are still large, central, shared objects. You have to accept the story in that time and place, or it won't make much sense.

Frank Herbert can write - and write well - in my opinion. Just look at Dune. The writing in this book is good but the problems, however, are two fold:

First, there's a lot of molecular biology double talk in here, I think. Perhaps, back in 1982, it was good enough, but this time around, I wasn't buying it as deeply as I must have before. Every time he'd get on the hairy edge of something that sounded plausible, he'd just as quickly get away from it again. I found that frustrating, and eventually just had to decide that he was doing the best he could at the time. Biology has advance a lot in 20 years, and I've followed a fair chunk of it, even if only superficially.

Secondly, there are some things happening in the last couple of chapters that feel too warm and fuzzy. It's as if he had to end the book and hadn't thought everything through deeply enough about the ending, and had a happy ending requirement like the one Hollywood usually imposes. I think a more sober ending would have been better.

There's a lot of Irish history in here, and I honestly don't know how true or accurate it is. If anyone with a deep understanding of Irish history were to read the book, I would appreciate some indication of how well Herbert did in his research.

What is scary about The White Plague, though, is still 100% possible. The anthrax scare of the 9/11 period could easily be just the tip of the iceberg. If a determined lunatic wants to do damage to our planet, it very well might not require nuclear weapons. Biology provides ample opportunities to harm vast numbers of people, and the fact is that one person's efforts could be both lethal and hidden until it is too late to counteract them.

So in summary, the message of the book is still very real, and it is something I think people should ponder. I only wish the book itself had held up a bit better over time. A good read, but not a great read.