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Forum nameReading Challenges, 2010
Topic subject55. The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Topic URLhttp://www.fmwriters.com/community/dc/dcboard.php?az=show_topic&forum=505&topic_id=6&mesg_id=998
998, 55. The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Posted by alissaameth, Fri Sep-17-10 08:13 PM
Science Fiction.
502 pages.

It took me a long time to finish this book, and I had a like-hate relationship with it the entire time. However, I think a huge part of the problem was a mismatch between what I wanted (and expected) the book to be and what Herbert actually wrote. I don't mean that he failed to make good on his promises to the reader. I mean that I had preconceived notions about how I thought the plot would be handled, based on reading a summary of the book elsewhere.

The story is about a man who is in Ireland for research purposes (he's a biologist/scientist of some sort that I forget). One day, his wife and children die in a terrorist attack that somehow involves the Irish, Great Britain and Libya. The scientist, driven mad by this loss, designs a plague that kills only women and then distributes it to punish the people that took his woman from him.

Now, here's what I expected, largely because I attend a women's college. I wanted to see how women would be treated. Would they be hidden away by resourceful men? ("Don't worry, honey, I'll save you.") Would they be kept isolated, or sent away? Would they have any agency at all? In addition to that, I was just expecting an entirely different protagonist. Perhaps the main characters would be a family that struggles through this time, when women are dropping like flies.

Imagine my surprise to find that the main character of the novel is the scientist, the Madman. Huh! It's clear that Herbert is interested in psychology, because he spends a lot of time talking about the Madman's mind and portraying the Madman's own journey through Ireland after the plague has begun. (Ireland is hit the hardest.) See, I don't think that's a terrible idea. It just isn't the story that I wanted to read... So I spent the first half of the novel wishing for less of the scientist and more of... anything else!

(If you were curious, there are very few women in the novel at all. Two researchers and "The One that Survived" are the only ones I can remember. The one who survived was preserved because her then-boyfriend put her in a tank right when the plague broke out, in which they lived together for months. We don't see much of this. The little that Herbert writes about them portrays the woman as very petty, whiny, needy and testy. Maybe I would feel that way if I were living in a tank, but the semi-feminist side of me was banging its head reading this.)

Another problem (in my opinion) was that the story in general was too distant from its circumstances. (It was certainly close to the Madman--and that was good writing, in my opinion. You really get into his head, and it's fascinating.) Now, the story starts with the terrorist attack that kills the wife and children. Then it follows the Madman making the plague. And then, once he's FINALLY perfected his virus, he distributes it.

Cut to politicians in Washington DC. The next 100 pages are about politicians and committees talking about the plague. Talking about it. Mentioning how women are dying left and right, mobs are breaking out everywhere, countries are racing to find cures first to gain more power, etc. Herbert goes to great lengths to impress upon the reader how BIG this thing is... but the reader never SEES any of it. It's all hear-say through politicians, until Herbert turns his focus back to the Madman walking through Ireland. Still, he's on the outskirts of most of the action.

So, there are good and bad things about this book. I was irked by the bad things so much that I almost didn't finish it. However, I would still recommend the book to others, as long as they didn't have the same expectations I had.

In summary, I thought it was too distant as it wrote around the action. The unexpected focus on the Madman didn't match my expectations of some kind of feminist treatment. (I should've known this wouldn't be feminist-ish, after reading Under Pressure. The MC's wife is lame.) However, Herbert does a great job following the Madman and getting the reader to KNOW him. There are two other characters who associate with the madmen who are interesting characters, too. I wish one of them had gotten more treatment, but I guess you can't write everything.

Last note: all pros and cons aside, I definitely think the book is about twice as long as it needs to be.