A (Nuclear) Blast from the Past: Lester del Rey’s “Nerves”

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.

7 comments on “A (Nuclear) Blast from the Past: Lester del Rey’s “Nerves”

  1. James Aach says:

    I was not aware of Mr. del Rey’s contribution to nuclear power disaster writing, but I suspect it was a common theme in that era for science fiction as well as bad movies.

    If you would like an easy-to-read look at daily life in a US nuclear plant, and what a bad day might be like, my novel “Rad Decision” tells the story in a way that allows a lay person to follow along and understand what the real problems would be. The book is free online (no advertisements or sponsors) – just Google the title. I’ve been working away at atomic plants for some years now and can provide a rare insider’s viewpoint. As a bonus, the plant design and bad day resemble Fukushima. Rad Decision has garnered a lot of positive reviews from readers at the homepage.

    One of them noted the following, about another early nuclear SF story………”If you haven’t read it already, there is a short story by Robert A. Heinlein you might like called Blowups Happen. He wrote it in 1940, long before there were commercial nuclear power plants. In it, the engineers tend to a fission core they call “The Bomb”. Working with The Bomb was so tedious and so terrifying that insanity was one of the occupational hazards. Not exactly an accurate take on nuclear technology today, but Heinlein certainly understood the hazards of the trade. http://www.baen.com/chapters/W200310/0743471598___4.htm

    • anhaga says:

      Thanks for the comment, James. I know I’ve read the Heinlein story at some point but have no memory of it. I’ll dig it out for another read tonight.

  2. barnswell says:

    From a UK perspective we had ‘Windscale’ in the 1950s. An accident at that plant, that in typically British fashion was covered up and smoothed over, by the then Tory government. Of course that led to a running sore culminating in the place having its name changed to the supposedly inoffensive, ‘Sellafield’. In the 60s we had the Dr. Quatermass TV series which fed on that atmosphere..I still have vague nightmares about it, but I remember it being damn good and really sinister…like DR. Who used to be. Then Wyndham’s the Chrysalids. All this got confused with fear of nuclear war; Moscow had missiles aimed at London, and we’re not so far away in time and space from1000s of years of war and disaster in this little island.

    I don’t clearly remember a time when technology was embraced with a shining optimism. Too much Dickens and William Blake still runs in our veins. Though Wilson the Labour PM of the sixties did give a speech in which the phrase, ‘the white heat of technology’ became part of the national consciousness. But still we had those public information films about what to do in the event of nuclear war. As I say it all got muddled up with nuclear energy itself.

    The full truth of Windscale is still to come out, despite the present orgy in the news here in Britain about cover ups, lies, corruption and abuse which runs nearly to the heart of everything we’re meant to be proud of.

    That’s just a few thoughts from perspective this side of the pond. And our science fiction has always had a tendency to darkness.

    But I do believe there are a few signs that attitudes might change. We’re in such a mess in so many ways…but that can lead to new unexpected changes.

    Nice blog post :)

  3. anhaga says:

    We had two good (?) accidents at Chalk River in the fifties as well, including a meltdown and some apparently quite heroic actions involving buckets of wet sand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalk_River_Laboratories#1952_NRX-incident There have also been more recent leakages at Chalk River. In an interesting parallel to del Rey’s story, isotope production is a big part of the work at Chalk River, including production of a significant portion of the world’s supply of medical isotopes. There was much worry recently that a temporary shutdown was going to cause problems for large numbers of patients.

    But, yes, Barnswell, there certainly has been a strain of nuclear dread in most societies and national science fictions since the beginning of the Atomic Age, and this is evidenced in del Rey’s story in the campaigns to move plants to depopulated areas and in the main character’s wife’s conviction that she lost her baby because they lived near the plant at which her husband works. But the overwhelming thrust of the story is that, yes, the “Converters” must be treated with care, but the dangers are outweighed by the benefits. Even though the accident comes within a hairs breadth of splitting North America from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico :)

    It was a world where the argument could still be advanced in public that nuclear contamination wasn’t really that bad. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that a certain President asserted that a nuclear war was winnable. I don’t think we live in that world anymore.

  4. James Aach says:

    As noted in my book, in the US, nuclear plants tend to be in less populated areas – at least within a 10 mile radius – because of the cost of developing and maintaining emergency evacuation plans. At some sites in the west and south this makes attracting good employees that much harder because of the lack of other amenities. In the northeast, that aspect hasn’t been as much of a problem because of population growth and the closer proximity of the plants to large urban cities anyway. I did have one reader comment that some Canadian plants may be closer to urban centers — I can’t say for sure, nor could I say for the rest of the world.

    • anhaga says:

      One Canadian nuclear plant I know of is the one in Pickering, Ontario. I remember visiting my cousins who lived just down the road. Pickering is a suburb of Toronto, definitely not a remote area. But Candu reactors have a bit of a reputation for being an inherently fairly safe design, from what I understand. I know it’s not that same scale as the big power generating reactors, but here in Edmonton there’s a Slowpoke in the basement of a building on the University Campus right in the middle of the city. I don’t think very many people even realize it’s there. It’s within a few metres of a major bus/subway transit centre and, of course, tens of thousands of students and staff. I expect if it were more well known, there’d be an outcry these days.

  5. [...] very little of his work.  I was all Clarke and Asimov and Larry Niven.  But when I was rereading Nerves a while back this ad on the back cover caught my [...]

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