Friday, March 27, 2009

Book Review: 'Nerves' by Lester del Rey
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)

1/5 Stars

‘Nerves’ (1956, 153 pp.), a novel about an accident at a nuclear power plant, was expanded from a story Lester del Rey published in 1942. This paperback edition appeared in 1970 and features an arresting cover illustration by Dean Ellis.

The story takes place in the late 20th century in the medical clinic of the National Atomics Products plant in Kimberly, Missouri. There, the senior physician, Roger Ferrell, and his younger assistant, Jenkins, deal with the occasional case of radiation exposure and trauma suffered by the plant’s ‘Atomjacks’. Things are not looking up for the atomic products industry; a serious accident at a Croton, New York plant has turned public opinion against locating the plants close to inhabited areas.

In an effort to curry favor with an influential politician, Palmer, the plant’s manager, orders intensive production of something called ‘Isotope 713’ which is used to kill boll weevils (!) infesting Representative Morgan’s home district, a Southern cotton-growing state. Unfortunately the stepped-up production of the isotope results in the untoward generation of something called ‘Isotope R’. This isotope is highly reactive, and an explosion partially destroys one of the plant’s ‘converters’ (i.e., reactors). Soon what remains of the building is afire, magma is dribbling out onto the grounds of the plant, and clouds of Isotope R are seeping out from the interior of the reactor and dissolving whatever structure remains. But that’s not the worst of it; Isotope R is capable of decaying into a third isotope, termed 'Mahler’s Isotope', of which the detonation of a thimbleful will level the entire state of Missouri.

‘Nerves’ is an awful book. It’s clear that del Rey gave a lackadaisical effort when he expanded the story to cash in on the hardbound SF novel market that was rising by the mid-50s. The writing is riddled with poor grammar and even poorer syntax. The dialogue is clumsy and filled with cringe-inducing mannerisms; speakers say things ‘jerkily’, turn their heads ‘jerkily’, and end their remarks with the construction “…. ,even.”

By the mid-50s even a modicum of effort on del Rey’s part would have allowed him to provide an updated scientific underpinning for the operation of a nuclear power plant, and a rationale for an accident of catastrophic proportions. However, he seemed content to recycle the lame sci-fi concepts (‘Isotope R’, ‘Mahler’s Isotope’, etc.) he used in the 1942 story.

Sometimes an engaging plot can rescue a novel from poor writing, but that’s simply not the case with ‘Nerves’. Most of the narrative centers on the doctor’s efforts to tend to patients with ‘radioactive’ lodged in their tissues; too much radioactive, and the afflicted lapse into spastic fits that require ‘neo-heroin’ and curare treatments (!). The happenings at the doomed reactor, while central to the story, are poorly communicated, and the book loses any momentum it has gained when del Rey focuses the narrative on the antics of Doc Ferrell and company.

In summary, even when making allowances for the fact that much of mid-50's SF writing was still en route to acquiring the stylistic skill taken for granted in 'conventional' prose, ‘Nerves’ is a poor example of a novel. I can only recommend it to those wishing to complete their collection of Lester del Rey publications.

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