In 1942 Lester del Rey, a second-string Golden Age science fiction stalwart, published a story titled “Nerves”. In 1956 he published an expanded version as a novel with the same title. It is to the 1956 version I refer here. Nerves is the story of an accident at a nuclear plant, the political machinations which helped cause it, and the struggle to control the disaster and save the injured. Almost all the science in Nerves is what is sometimes called “rubber science”: to be less polite, it’s made up and inaccurate, although often based on speculation and hopeful expectation of mid-twentieth century popular science. The writing is unremarkably workmanlike. One might expect that this little book of science fiction, with its poor fiction and worse science would be best forgotten, but . . .
I can’t help but feel a fascination with the thing, principally because of del Rey’s confidence in the power of technology to solve our problems and remake the world for modern humanity. This idea of the improvability of Nature has become largely foreign to modern public discourse (although we in the West silently continue to take part in just such an idea as we painlessly adopt every new bit of technology). I happily acknowledge (guiltily confess?) my strong nostalgia for the nuclear-powered, sky-scrapered, monorailed future metropolis that never was to be. So, del Rey’s future in which nuclear plants’ prime function is to produce inconceivably useful and beneficial trans-uranic elements in the (non-existent) Islands of Stability while generating vast amounts of power as a cheap byproduct — this world stirs my naive childhood technocratic dreams of a future life made better through chemistry and physics. And I can’t help feeling sympathetic to del Rey’s depiction of the Ludite mobs opposed to the nuclear industry as a bunch of ignorant fools wanting to destroy all the benefits of the magnificent modern world in order to return to the brutish pre-Atomic age.
Of course, we know better now, don’t we?
Of particular interest in this Post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima age, is del Rey’s description of the heroic efforts to shut down the out of control reactor. Certainly these heroes are to some extent typical two-fisted, square-jawed pulp fiction American heroes. But, think about those who dove into the radioactive water in the shredded reactor at Chernobyl and the volunteer workers in Fukushima, fully aware that theirs was likely a suicide mission. Perhaps del Rey’s most reassuring achievement in Nerves is the prediction that nuclear catastrophe would produce self-sacrificing heroes.
Del Rey also makes a sadly accurate prediction in describing the machinations of the Congressional fellow from Missouri, playing his constituent cotton farmers, the anti-nuclear lobby and the nuclear industry off against each other in order to stay in office, all by forcing the attempt to produce a potentially earth-destroying isotope, the production attempt which leads to the meltdown.
Nerves has many shortcomings for the modern reader, not least the solution to the problem of the nuclear accident — dump the radioactive crud into the river out back and presto! the world is saved. But as an historical document demonstrating mid-century attitudes to technology I find it fascinating. Right now I have beside me a copy of the July 1978 issue of Analog magazine containing a “Science Fact” article by Ralph Hamil titled “Terraforming the Earth”. Even into the last quarter of the twentieth century, just a few years before Chernobyl changed everything, there was serious discussion and planning for megaprojects to divert rivers across continents and “reshape the face of the globe to [humanity's] liking.” How things have changed in a single generation.
A worthwhile cautionary tale, Nerves also warns both of the dangers of political interference in scientific research and of uninformed knee-jerk reactions to real or imagined threats from that research. Certainly the thing was targeted at adolescent American boys like so much of the Science Fiction of the time and it induces near-constant eye-rolls. But somehow bits of surprising progressivism slip in: a character with a disability; a number of female characters who are strong, competent professionals taking control of the situation and in command of all those two-fisted square-jawed heroic men; even a Japanese scientist (albeit with embarrassingly stereotypical dialect) as a part of the team in a story written only a few years after Pearl Harbour.
For all its flaws, and they are many, Nerves can be a remarkable trip back to the time before nuclear accidents were real history, before technology had in fact remade the world (for the worse), to a time when technology and hope for the future were to some degree synonymous.
Sadly, Nerves seems to be out of print at the moment. Why not take a look in your local second-hand bookshop?
I also have a little something to say about del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment.
Update, within a few hours of the original post: I’ve just reread Ralph Hamil’s Analog piece “Terraforming the Earth”, Analog, July, 1978, pp. 46-65 for the first time since I was in high school and . . . Oh, my Goodness! This is going to need a blog post of its own! But how’s this for a taste?
Other proposed peaceful uses of atomic devices include the blasting of harbours in Alaska and Madagascar, and underground reservoirs, and facilitation of oil, gas, and mine production. But the missing element of general world sanity may long inhibit such uses.
Yes, the “absence of general world sanity” is what inhibits the use of nuclear devices to aid the extraction of hydrocarbons from Alberta’s oil/tar sands, something that was actually proposed at one point in history.
It was a very different world, indeed.