Lester del Rey
Completed 1/10/2015, Reviewed 1/11/2015
I bought this book from a used paperback vendor at Orycon 2014 for a buck. I thought I’d try another novel by del Rey after my less than satisfying experience with “Pstalemate” last year. “Nerves” is about an atomic products manufacturing plant disaster, originally written as a novella in 1942, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was expanded into a short novel in ’56, and then republished around the time of the Three Mile Island accident. I thought it would be a fun romp of disaster porn, a la the book “The Prometheus Crisis” or the film “The China Syndrome”. Instead, it makes me consider the idea that del Rey was a better publisher and promoter of science fiction than a writer of it.
The most interesting thing about this book is that it is mostly told from the perspective of the doctorstationed at the plant. I rather liked Doc Ferrel, a gruff, former genius surgeon and his long suffering wife Emma, who didn’t get nearly enough scenes. I also liked the junior surgeon Jenkins. Del Rey made them quite real without making them too soapy, and given the short length of the novel, gave them nicely distinct personalities. I was particularly fond of Jenkins’ self-awareness of his own nerves, which is part of the reference in the title.
The other reference to the title is the speculative result of being blasted with atomic particulates, that they cause a body’s nerves to spasm uncontrollably resulting in strain, broken bones, and paralysis. In fact, I found the medical crisis to be more interesting than the disaster itself. It was exciting and suspenseful.
The rest of the story was harder to take. Seventy years of better understanding of the effects of radiation make this book quite dated. The blood transfusion and curare treatment del Rey purports seems naïve now that we know about the long term problems with cancers and genetic defects. And the dumping of the “neutralized” radioactive waste into the nearby river is just terrifying. It makes the happy ending simply unbelievable.
The Isotope R/Mahler’s Isotope story line was also quite contrived. I think this is one of the problems with hard science fiction. When an author gets too detailed in the speculation of the science, the result becomes dated and unbelievable as new knowledge increases our understanding of it. This is a major problem in “Nerves”. I found myself thinking “This is plain wrong” through much of the technical discussions, and I have a pretty high threshold for willing suspension of disbelief. It’s easier to read a book about flying cars and teleportation in the 1970s than it is to read this.
I give this book two stars out of five because the medical scenes are wonderfully suspenseful. But for being only 150 pages long, far too many pages contained contrived speculation that just flat out seemed wrong. I seriously have to do a lot more research before picking up another del Rey book.