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Nuclear and mental meltdown: Brainrack by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1974)

brainrack

In a previous post I discussed  Mutant  59: the  Plastic Eater, the first novel by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis,  who worked together on Doctor Who,   and then created  the early 1970s ecological thriller series Doomwatch.

Their second novel Brainrack was published in 1974 by Souvenir Press,  and followed a similar trajectory to their first novel,   exploring  the  dangers  of what unregulated  scientific advances might do to people and  society.

The “hero” of the novel is a scientist Dr Alexander Mawn, who is that familiar  science fiction character –  the maverick –  at odds with  the scientific establishment. He believes  that an unidentified phenomenon is causing people to suffer from diminished intellectual abilty with possible disastrous consequences for society. He calls this “brainrack”.   Mawn’s  discovery  is unwelcome news to a number of politicians and businessmen who attempt to  publicly discredit him. After his laboratory is attacked and his assistant killed,  Mawn goes in pursuit of the man behind the attack – millionaire Brian Gelder –  who is building a nuclear power station in Scotland for the government. Mawn teams up with research psychologist Marcia Scott and,  through his Whitehall contacts,   manages  to get themselves invited to witness the opening of the Grimness  reactor.  Mawn believes the safety of the reactor been compromised by  “brainrack” affecting the operators whom he and Marcia  have tested.

The core of the book is a gripping and horrifying  second -by-second description of a nuclear accident at the reactor, caused by  faulty  heat sensors,  which successfully  brings together Pedler’s scientific knowledge with Davis’ writing ability. It’s worth remembering that  this  was written long before before accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

13.45 + 60 seconds

Inside  the core, the explosive reaction between the melting fuel cans and water culminated in one long shock  wave which   slammed through the whole assembly hammering against the steel shell…

13.46 +   2 seconds

The whole building shook and there was a deep echoing boom followed by the howling scream of gases escaping under pressure. Glass showered down from breaking florescent lights  in the ceiling of the Control Room . There was a second heavy explosion and an instrument panel sheared away from its wall mountings and fell massively forward,  strking one technician on the shoulder….

13.46 + 10 seconds

…the concrete floor erupted like a volcano as one of the pumps burst like a huge grenade,  flinging jagged cast iron fragments into the air like shrapnel. The room  filled with  clouds of roaring steam as fragments of the pumps careered and ricocheted off the walls…

Many  of the operatives die in the explosion or  from  massive radioactive poisoning,   but a small group  includng Mawn, Marcia and Gelder survive,  and manage to make their way out of the wrecked  reactor  and through the wintry countryside  to safety. Back in London Mawn now enjoys renewed  credibility with the government  and heads a research project which   eventually identifies a component in petrol as the cause of “brainrack”. He persuades the government  to agree to  an experiment  in which all traffic in London  is banned for four  days. After a shaky  start  the levels of the pollutant start to fall. The books ends  with Mawn addressing a crowd in  a car-free  London street:

“…Every one of us is going to make a full and final decision. From now on  every car owner  who starts his engine is going to be fully aware of what he’s doing. There’s no way for him to get out of it”.  He put his arm around Marcia’s  shoulder and started to move away.

“Over the next forty years or so, we’re going to be forced to adjust the whole of our life style – the whole of our technology to cater for millions of adults…  who are never going to recover.  So present  my apologies to the Prime Minsiter and tell him that the choice is really quite simple. It’s cars or the minds of our children, and  God knows which we shall choose.”

Brainrack  is a novel of ideas and action,   rather than character  and development. I am not sure if I even like Mawn very much , while  Marcia never amounts to much more  than his  eventual bed-partner, which  is par for the course for women characters in much of  early 1970s fiction.  From the late 60s onwards Kit Pedler was increasingly disillusioned with the  notion  that unfettered scientific research   would  lead to greater happiness for all. He came to believe that  much scientfic research  was in fact  driven solely  by corporate interests or national prestige and was destroying the planet  – and   needed to be stopped before it was too late. Forty years on, with global warming unchecked and London choking from diesel fumes,  it feels as though we should  heed these warnings more than ever…

Further reading

Michael Seely has produced an excellent  biography of Kit Pedler: The Quest for Pedler:the Life and Times of Dr Kit Pedler (2014), published by miwk.

You can watch one  episode from Mind Over Matter, a television series presented by Kit in the spring in 1981, which looked at the possibility of telepathy and other  paranormal activity.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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