The following article first featured on the site Excuse The Blood and is syndicated with permission of the author.
Frank Herbert will be primarily known as the author of the Dune series, to the extent that its popularity outweighs and obscures his work outside of the franchise. A lesser known work, 1982’s The White Plague takes his science fiction into a more real and bizarrely disturbing setting. I should add that this analysis will contain information that is tantamount to spoilers. So if you’re one whose sense of expectation and titillation are rendered obsolete by notions of ‘what happens at the end’, then do not read further.
The setting of The White Plague is primarily Ireland, still at that time in the depths of the ethno-sectarian violence that defined The Troubles from the end of the 1960’s until the end of the 1990’s. The protagonist, Irish-American scientist John Roe O’Neill is in Dublin, when his wife and children are killed by an IRA car bomb that parallels the real life Dublin-Monaghan bombing, albeit that the real event was perpetrated by the UVF.
O’Neill is left jaundiced and deranged from the trauma, seeking to bring revenge. He develops a myriad of split personalities, and seeks his vendetta by concocting a disease that only kills women and which has only male vectors, unleashing it on the Irish population. Not only does he unleash it on Ireland for the IRA’s actions, but unleashes it on England for creating the historical conditions which fertilised the IRA, but also Libya for training and supplying them.
In a series of letters and correspondences, O’Neill makes clear his terms and conditions. He demands that each country he has targeted quarantine, so that according to him they might learn to lose what he has lost. In the meantime under a different identity he has returned to Ireland, claiming to offer his services as a molecular biologist but in reality attempting to sabotage any attempts to find a cure.
As speculation about the “Madman” scientist grows, O’Neill journeys to a lab in Killaloe. He is accompanied by an old priest, Father Michael Flannery, as well as a boy who has undertook a vow of silence due to the death of his mother and Joseph Herity, a Provisional IRA man who set off the car bomb that killed his family. Their offer of safe company is really a means to find out whether he truly is the creator of the virus.
O’Neill’s plague inevitably leads to a slippery slope that results in regional lockdowns, quickly graduating to national and global lockdowns, inevitably accompanied by mass hysteria and moral panic. These lead to outbreaks of violence, with scientists and technocrats targeted, as well as members of nationalities suspected of carrying the virus.
The IRA effectively take control of much of Ireland, where a militia called the Finn Sadal take control of key access points and effectively implement their own form of medical martial law. A resurgent form of ultranationalist militarism is added to what was already present in the Troubles, and throughout The White Plague a revival of the traditional Druidic religious practices of Ireland is given reference to. Ancient myths and kings of Gaelic Ireland are alluded to by the Finn Sadal and their leader, Kevin O’Donnell, whilst a character named McRae takes multiple young girls as brides, impregnating them. As women became rarer polyandry increases on a level of primordial superstition.
This brings me to point out something in Herbert’s writing that is conceptually coherent across his work; the alteration of societal values, structure and belief according to scarcities. In Dune, it is the technological purge (the Butlerian Jihad), the universal rarity of the spice melange and the scarcity of water on Arrakis that catalyzes hierarchy and spirituality. In The White Plague then it is the depletion of womankind, her status as a natural counterpart to man, her birth-bearing and familial capacity and the near destruction of these institutions that drive fundamentalism, warfare, genocide and irreversible upheavals, from protagonists of a technocratic/scientific and a spiritual/theocratic worldview.
Another characteristic of Herbert’s writing is his use of epigraphs and selected quotations at the beginning of each chapter, setting the backstory and narrative to the environment of the novel. The work is also undoubtedly well researched, and Herbert certainly took a keen insight into the history of Ireland to animate his fiction, both archaic and contemporary. In setting them within disastrous speculative fiction, he is able to work from real events of political turbulence and bring them into strife ridden dystopias of scientific excess. In The White Plague, he unleashes a neo-Druidic Jekyll and Hyde character in the form of John Roe O’Neill.
Amidst O’Neill’s journey to Killaloe we witness a psychological war between Father Flannery and Joseph Herity. The priests moralistic journey and crisis of faith amidst an eviscerating plague is perhaps his Dark Night Of The Soul. Herity’s borderline psychotic temperament, ideological purity spiralling and utmost contempt for religious superstition illustrates the follies of militants who see nothing beyond a purely political and territorial solution, negating all structures of spiritual and cultural concern, merely appropriating their facades. Amidst this the psychological layers unfold, becoming more increasingly evident that amidst O’Neill’s schizoid malice lies a heart that once loved normally, and to add more of a dilemma, the hope of Fr Flannery that his presence may drive him to confession. If we consider religiosity to be a key factor of comparison in The White Plague, then Flannery is the closest thing to traditional or perrenial morality akin perhaps to a more aged Muad’dib whilst the earthly, elemental forces summoned by the Finn Sadal are not unlike that of the Bene Gesserit, their militaristic temparment not unlike the Sardaukar. Unlike Dune, where religious forces are the essence of the ultimate power centre, The White Plague is truly dystopian in that the onus of solving the fundamental problems of the narrative are invested in forces that are solely technocratic, scientific and materialistic in their intention and outlook.
The ending of the novel is the most disturbing part, perhaps. The cliffhanger comes with a resolution that restores an uneasy equilibrium, prescient of what would occur in the early stages of an ultra permissive world suited to what is depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World or Logan’s Run. The vengeful malice of one scientist acts as a means by which a technocratic elite can enforce polyandry and a new sexual social contract can emerge, uniquely inorganic and laboratorial. Themes of social engineering are abundant throughout science fiction, and those explored within The White Plague are comparable with other literary works such as Anthony Burgess’ novel The Wanting Seed and Joe Haldemann’s The Forever War. The Malthusian ‘gynaecocracy’ of the Immortals in John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz also runs parallel to this, where aggressively masculine-minded women rule a world of effete, sexless men who have ceased to acknowledge the inevitable cycle of life and death.
It is inevitable that some commentators will draw comparisons to the COVID-19 situation, though the plague in Frank Herbert’s work annihilates and decimates without mercy. Whilst the real world ‘pandemic’ is far more about social, behavioural, algorithmic and psychological conditioning than it is about the ‘containment’ of a virus, it is testament to how a cynical misuse of technology and the inability of humanity to hold it to account can lead to irreversibly disastrous consequences and ‘resets’. This can certainly be regarded as having wavelengths with the eagerness of many talking heads in the ‘scientific community’ to instill what Aldous Huxley described as the “pharmalogical method of making people love their servitude”. Given the presence of Ireland today as a proverbial Airstrip One for tax avoidant pharmaceutical companies worldwide, and the cultural deification we see given to ‘vaccine tsars’ such as Anthony Fauci, Luke O’Neill and Bill Gates such a parallel is hardly surprising.
The only criticism that can be levelled at this novel perhaps is Frank Herbert not being native enough to comprehend, discern and interpret dialects in Ireland. The resulting dialogues of some characters are a typically ‘twee’ caricature of Irishisms, which can be easily expected of any foreign person who has spent a limited amount of time in a certain place. However, one can clearly tell he has done his research, as his insights on history and location are well placed within the story. These small inaccuracies are ones likely to evoke a cultural kneejerk from ‘East Yank’ Irish audiences who are in every shape and form the products of a globalistic, Anglo-American liberal worldview. Whether that worldview was shaped by The Commitments or Normal People, they take a profound distaste for those who enquire and give insight to their culture and lineage far more sincerely and earnestly than they do. Whilst they may use that against the author it is proof of their descent into coping with having wilfully dismembered their own culture.