`Nerves' (1956, 153 pp.), a novel about an accident at a nuclear power plant, was expanded from a story Lester del Rey first 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. And even as the National Atomics Products plant prepares for a visit by an oversight committee, an employee is injured in an accident, further tarnishing the public perception of nuclear power and its promotion as a safe source of energy.
In an effort to curry favor with an influential politician on the oversight committee, Palmer, the plant's manager, orders intensive production of something called `Isotope 713', the idea being to use this isotope to irradiate cotton fields in the South and eliminate boll weevils (!) However, the press for increased synthesis of Isotope 713 strains the plant's capacity, and before too long something called `Isotope-R' gets produced as a dangerous byproduct. Isotope-R is highly reactive, and within moments it has destroyed one of the plant's reactors (`converters').
Even as Ferrell and the other medical personnel struggle to cope with an influx of accident casualties, a new danger arises: if Isotope-R decays into something called `Mahler's Isotope', the risk of a catastrophic explosion is frighteningly real.
Can Doc Ferrell revive the one injured plant worker whose knowledge can halt the threat posed by Mahler's Isotope ? Can Doctor Jenkins come up with the critical mathematical calculations needed to design a response to the looming catastrophe ? Or will the National Atomics Products plant, all its personnel, and a sizeable tract of Missouri be vaporized in an atomic blast ?
Despite what would seem to be plot's inherent drama and excitement, del Rey's pulp-era prose style torpedoes the entire novel. While I was not expecting a mid-50s SF novel to exemplify sophisticated writing, del Rey's awkward sentence constructions, clumsy dialogue, and contrived plot elements make reading `Nerves' a chore.
It's also quite clear that he made little effort to try and update or modernize the scientific underpinnings of the book; by the mid-50s even a modest amount of research on del Rey's part would have led him to abandon the cheesy sci-fi conventions of `Isotope-R' or `Mahler's Isotope' for genuine nuclear reactor chemistries.
The bottom line: readers will want to look elsewhere for an engaging, representative 1950s SF novel.