“White Plague” by James Abel – Arctic military thriller with a surprising focus on moral choices

white plagueWhen I started “White Plague”, I expected something along the lines of  “Ice Station Zebra” or “Deception Point” – secrets, betrayal and super-power rivalry  set against the unforgiving Arctic climate.  All those elements are in “White Plague” (although the super-power rival to the US is now China rather than Russia) together with the idea of one brave man solving a puzzle that will save the world, but the book goes beyond all that by focusing repeatedly on the moral dilemma of choosing whether the survival of the many justifies the death of a few.This was little more depth than I expected from a military thriller and it made the book much more interesting.

“White Plague”  centres around the mission of US Marine Colonel and bio-weapons expert, Joe Rush, to rescue a US Submarine that has been crippled by fire and is now on the surface in the Arctic ice.

Inevitably, Joe is a troubled man: haunted by his past, divorced, sleepless, isolated and a few days away from leaving the leaving the Marines. I almost groaned at all this because it sounded so clichéd. Fortunately, the character of Joe Rush is rounded-out not only by the action in the Arctic but by vividly described flashbacks to his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of the book I understood and believed in, Joe Rush. I can’t say I liked him much because, while he was admirable and brave and heart-sore, he still seemed to have “insensitive asshole” as his default setting. Still, my dislike of him is a tribute to how well written the character is.

Whatever his faults, I was glad to see that Joe Rush didn’t suffer from the blind patriotism of  Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer, who are both disturbing examples of men who will do anything to anyone if they perceive them as a threat to the USA. Joe Rush holds himself accountable for his actions and constantly questions the moral basis for own decisions.

“White Plague” is full of difficult moral decisions: for Joe Rush in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arctic; for an Airforce General, asked to do an unspeakable favour for the President, through to the advisors to the President and the President himself. All of these dilemmas come down, in different ways, to one question: would you personally kill a small number of people to save a large number of people. The answers are varied, thoughtful and never easy.

There’s some good writing in “White Plague”, particularly the descriptions of the Arctic conditions, the vivid images of the what it feels live to ride in Humvee, or walk into an apparently deserted village in hostile territory and the remarkably clear images of being on-board a large, unfamiliar ship. Unfortunately there is also a tendency towards cliché, which is disappointing  when it’s clear that James Able can do better. The book would have been better if the female lead had not had to have a frail beauty as well as being an internationally known Arctic explorer, an athlete and a designer of submarines, or if the Senator on-board had not has such a tendency to bullying through unoriginal verbal bluster. I also thought the ending had too much wish-fulfillment for a novel that had, up until then, seemed to understand political reality.

“White Plague” left me wondering why anyone joins the military and puts themselves in line for such hard moral decisions.

Oh and my favourite quote in the book is “Politics is Hollywood for ugly people.”

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear some of “White Plague” for yourself.

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