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…
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.
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