Nerves by Lester del Rey
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Astounding, September 1942
Price I paid: $3
During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.
Back to the old Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction! This collection was starting to worry me. I don’t think there had been a story yet that got me excited. Rocklynne’s entry had some potential that I don’t think it lived up to, and van Vogt left me cold. But I picked the book up again this weekend because I was a bit short on time and attention span, and lo and behold, something I read got me excited.
And the thing I read was that Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer! is only two stories away.
So I loined my girds and set forth, knowing that the sooner I got del Rey out of the del way, I’d be basking in some of that sweet sweet Sturgeon action.
(Also, next up is a Frederic Brown story that is probably fine)
I don’t mean to throw shade at old Lester, it’s just that I had no idea what to expect. All told, I knew more about Judy-Lynn del Rey and the powerhouse of sci-fi publishing that she created than I did about Lester. Although I did do a little digging and discovered that I had read one of his stories before, “Helen O’Loy,” so maybe I needn’t have worried so much. I remember liking that story well enough. I could have sworn there was an X Minus One or Dimension X adaptation of it, but apparently not? Memory is a fickle thing. What am I thinking of?
Oh crap, I forgot about Weeping May Tarry! That book sucked! That’s hardly del Rey’s fault, though. (Click through to find out 7 reasons! Trump hates #3!). I still need to read the story it’s based on.
Nerves, a pretty long novella to start with (seventy pages!) was fleshed out into a full-on novel in 1956, with a revised version released in ’76.
I might look for it! It turns out that I needn’t have dreaded this story so much (honestly, for no reason that I can figure anyway). It was fine! It shows its age a lot, but it still remains a damn well-told story.
Our main guy is a doctor named Roger Ferrel. He’s been in the medical biz for quite a long time and is an experienced, skilled doctor with a cool head, a wealth of knowledge and plenty of humanity to go around. I pictured him as being played by William Daniels, because even though I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of St. Elsewhere all the way through, it’s still in my head somehow. Hell of a good theme song.
Dr. Ferrel is the chief doctor at National Atomic Products Co, Inc., a company that makes radioactive isotopes on behalf of the United States government. It’s never said when the story takes place, but it does not seem to be in the present day (1942) for a couple of reasons.
There’s a lot of whiz-bang technological stuff that I don’t think existed during World War II. I don’t think most of it exists now. A lot of it is bonkers stuff with little to no relation to modern scientific understanding. And that’s okay! Part of it is that nuclear science was so new in 1942, you could probably say anything about it and it was as likely to be right as not. The other part of it is that the story can still be exciting even if the science is just whatever.
The other thing that makes me think that del Rey didn’t place this story in 1942 is that there is a Japanese character named Hokusai. Hokusai was the most cringe-inducing element of the book, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but at the same time, it’s weirdly progressive to have him at all in a story published less than a year after Pearl Harbor.
Hokusai is always referred to as “the little Japanese,” which is just ugh. But then there was a small glimmer of hope.
The scientist nodded slowly, his wrinkled face as expressionless as his unaccented English.
Okay, so we’ve got a bit of an “Inscrutable Asian” thing going on, which is another ugh, but that “unaccented English” is kinda nice, right? Like, at least we’re not going to have to read a bunch of gross eye dialect? That’s a little big progressi—
“Yess, they are make I-713 for the weevil. Why you assk?”
You can’t say he’s unaccented and then have him talk in a ridiculous accent! That’s terrible behavior and terrible writing.
The “weevil” we just talked about is another key part of this story. Not the weevil itself, just what it represents. The main thing this Atomics Plant does is create “artificial radioactives.” These human-made isotopes have a variety of productive uses. Some of them have half-lives on the scale of weeks or even days, so they can be used for all sorts of cool things, like killing insects!
That’s right! You can kill boll weevils by tossing radioactive dust all over your fields! The Wonders of Tomorrow, Today!
This is horrible and goofy and wonderful in that way that only whiz-bang science fiction from the Golden Age can be.
The first three-quarters or so of this novel were a pretty interesting hospital drama with a good twist. All our doctors know at first is that something bad has happened. The stuff going on at this factory is highly specialized, so expecting someone to understand it and also have an MD is a little on the exceptional side. Fortunately, there is that exceptional person available. He’s a fellow doctor named Jenkins. The problem is that Jenkins is a new doctor, untested under great stress. There’s a solid chance that he’ll crack under the pressure, hence the title of the story, I guess.
A large portion of the story has the POV in close with the doctors, and there are a lot of questions and no time to try to answer them. All we know is that there are injured people brought in, and the doctors need to do what they can to save them. The injuries range from radiation burns to shrapnel injuries, to a weird combination of both.
One of the things this novella asserts that I don’t think is true is that when a person has a piece of radioactive material embedded in their skin, such as from an explosion, the radiation causes all the nerves nearby to fire wildly. This causes powerful jerky motions that can actually lead to broken bones and, eventually, death by exhaustion. The cure for this is a synthesized version of curare, followed by removal of the radioactive shrapnel.
There are a lot of cool future medical procedures in this book. For instance, something called “neo-heroin” that is non-addictive, and a method of safely bringing a patient’s temperature down and warming them back up so that surgery can be performed without anesthetic.
We get a trickle of information with each group of patients. Something called Isotope R seems to be the problem. One of the plants creating it had an accident and exploded, and now there’s a bunch of this crap lying around unsafely. (I don’t think they ever said how it was supposed to be contained safely.)
So here’s the thing about Isotope R. It has an unpredictable half-life, which is weird! Element half-lives are one of those things you can just count on being predictable in this wild universe. Isotope R doesn’t decay in a definite chain, though. For contrast, in real life (and I presume the world of this story) uranium-238 decays into thorium-234, which in turn decays into protactinium-234, which in turn decays into uranium-234, and then a bunch more, and eventually it ends up lead. Isotope R has several possible chains of elements it can decay into (for some reason), and as a result, it means that the time itself is unpredictable, although it’s a matter of hours or days.
The problem is that no matter what path it decides to take, Isotope R will always eventually turn into something called Mahler’s Isotope…for approximately one billionth of a second before it explodes violently.
How violently? That’s also variable. The quantity located at this facility might either destroy everything within fifty miles, or it might crack the North American continent in half.
Drs. Ferrel and Jenkins, along with their team, have to do their part to save the day. One of the technicians—called “atomjacks” in what I assume is analogous to lumberjacks, and I frikkin LOVE IT—has been lost in the accident. He’s found but in very bad shape. Dr. Ferrel has to get him back into fighting shape so that he can at least guide everybody into how to contain this situation.
It’s Dr. Jenkins, who came to medicine after learning the atomjack trade from his dad, who figures out a solution. It’s kind of anticlimactic. He just figures out a way to heat the Isotope R so much that it turns gaseous, after which it is blown by fans out of the factory into a river. These two streams cause it to disperse enough that when the atoms do decay into Mahler’s Isotope, it doesn’t cause a big single chain reaction, but rather a bunch of very small explosions that are relatively okay, I guess, as long as you aren’t a fish.
That’s pretty neat.
The nice thing about this story is how everything tied together. All of the victories seemed earned. For instance, we learn about the freezy-anesthetic device early on because Hokusai comes down with appendicitis. Later, it gets put into use on Jorgensen. He’s got so much of this Isotope R in his system that it’s killing him, but Ferrel can’t think of a way to flush it out. Somebody brings up another Isotope that can negate it, but the problem is that the process generates a lot of heat. Using it on Jorgensen would boil him alive…unless you make him cold first! Sure, that other Isotope kind of came out of nowhere, but at least it wasn’t just a solution. It was a solution that led to another problem, which in turn was solved by a solution we’d already had seeded. Good storytelling!
Also, they couldn’t use that other Isotope to save the day from the explosion because there just wasn’t enough of it. That’s why they had to come up with the other idea.
There are a few women in this story, all nurses except one. And the one who isn’t is kind of a doctor, which is pretty amazing for a story from ’42, except the story also goes really far out of its way to assert that she’s not, like, a real doctor. She’s a sort of nurse-doctor. Literally a Doctor of Nursing, meant to be halfway between the two professions.
I know that there are advanced degrees in Nursing, including a Doctorate of Nursing Practice, but I don’t think that’s what this is. This doctor, who tells us she’s fine being called Nurse Brown, is probably closer to what we’d call today a nurse practitioner?
But what’s funny (not really haha funny though) is that I picture del Rey sitting there at his keyboard thinking that there’s no way he could give this story an M.D. who is a woman and have it be believable. Radioactive boll weevil pesticides are one thing, but let’s not get ridiculous.
Maybe I’m not being fair to Lester. Like I said, this story is very much of its time. But del Rey’s job was to look into the future and show us cool things. One of those things couldn’t be a professional medical woman who wasn’t a nurse. That’s a little telling.
I’m not trying to put down nurses, by the way! Nurses are some of the raddest, most underappreciated people I know. I would never ever in a million years be tough, smart, or brave enough to be a nurse for a single hour. But the nurses in this story, while competent enough, are also markedly on the prowl for a husband so they can quit the job.
For all I know, de; Rey got better about that in later years. After all, he married Judy-Lynn in 1971, and she was, by all accounts I can find, a brilliant editor. Ballantine named its science fiction and fantasy lines after her! It was her idea to buy the publishing rights to novels based on Star Wars before the movie was even out, earning Ballantine millions of dollars! She was arguably more successful professionally than he was, and they stayed married for fifteen years until she passed away, so I reckon he didn’t mind her incredible career very much.
Any-weezy, I reckon that’s about all I have to say about this one. It was more entertaining than I thought it would be. I’m still not quite sure why I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it in the first place. It’s probably residual disappointment in the van Vogt story. Transference from having two guys in a row with lowercase middle names (I know, they’re called nobiliary particles). The book itself. The whole world in general.
It was certainly an entertaining read, and I think I’ll take a look at the expanded version. From what I understand, it deals more with the political motivations that led to the accident happening in the first place (never once touched on in the novella), so I’d be interested in seeing what that’s all about.