None of us set out to do anything more than be technically ingenious. We succeeded and London nearly died. Surely that’s more than enough to make us redirect our activities. The next time it may be the whole world.
Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters (1971)
Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were a writing duo active in the 1960s and ’70s. They wrote for the BBC’s Doctor Who in the ’60s, giving the world the Cybermen in 1966.
When I was a solitary, bespectacled and distinctly oikotropic child growing up in Dundee in the 1960s, I never found the Cybermen that frightening, to be honest. I was much more worried about their etymologically linked contemporaries, the Cybernauts—trilby-wearing, karate-chopping killer robots from ITV’s television series, The Avengers.
Anyway, Pedler and Davis went on to invent a fabulously successful television series for the BBC, in the techno-thriller genre—Doomwatch (1970). They tapped into the burgeoning environmental paranoia of the times, and each episode saw the appearance of some new threat to the world (generally produced by careless, malevolent or just plain dumb scientists), which had to be sorted out by a quasi-governmental organization with a formal name that seemed to vary from episode to episode, but which was code-named Doomwatch.
The name pretty quickly entered the lexicon, as a word for any kind of observation intended to avert technological danger—the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage, other than as a direct reference to the TV series, in 1973.
The formula worked so well for them, they cooperated to produce three novels in the same style—Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters (1971), Brainrack (1974) and The Dynostar Menace (1975), all involving some near-future technological threat that endangers civilization. *
The strengths of the novels are in their meticulous technical descriptions, and in their ability to conjure up striking scenarios that remain in the memory. The weakness is … well, the writing. Pedler and Davis can’t really do conversation very well, and either they or their publisher seem to be in the grip of some sort of punctuation famine—there are a lot of missing question marks, a lot of commas where full stops or semicolons might do the job better, and a lot of places in which the insertion of a humble comma would have made the reading a great deal easier.
I recently decided to re-read them, to see if the striking images were still striking, and how well their “advanced technology” stood the test of time.
First up is Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, in which a bacterium engineered to digest plastic escapes into central London. The plot is recycled and expanded from the first episode of Doomwatch. There’s much discussion of bacterial cultures and electron microscopy (Pedler’s day-job was in electron microscopy), and lots of scientists having ill-tempered disputes over molecular design. The peril comes from the way the bacterium strips the insulation off electric wiring and ruptures the plastic seals on gas pipes as it spreads through the sewers and tunnels under London. The striking visuals come from the way kitchen work-surfaces, airliner cabins and trendy “wet-look” PVC clothing melt and puddle as the bacteria do their work. The memorable scenarios are the deserted appearance of an evacuated central London, the slow disintegration and failure of a passenger aircraft in flight over the Atlantic, and the long trek through the tunnels of the London Underground that some of the novel’s characters have to make to reach safety after disaster strikes. The Pan paperback has, I think, a near perfect cover photograph by Julian Cottrell—a fancy briefcase with a combination lock (implying privilege and secrecy), is open to reveal a melted model of a Boeing 727 passenger aircraft (echoing two major themes of the novel, melting plastic and aircraft crashes).
The successor volume, Brainrack, has two plot threads—one that kicks off the story, and then peters out; and one that ramps up as the story progresses, to provide the novel’s climax. The early part of the novel raises concerns that computers are becoming so complicated that they can make decisions in ways humans can’t understand. In these days of trained neural networks, that’s now a real worry—for Pedler and Davis to have pointed it out in 1974, in the days when computers still occupied entire rooms and were programmed with tape and punched cards, was remarkably prescient. The other strand of the story involves the detection of decreasing intelligence (as well as more focal neurological disabilities) in some subgroups of the world’s population. The combination of “too clever by half” computers with dumb operators produces a Perfect Storm during the commissioning of a new nuclear reactor in Orkney, resulting in a core meltdown and a “China Accident” †, with a massive release of radiation.
The description of the meltdown, and the story of the protagonist’s escape from the ruined power station, is the high point of the book. On either side of that, things move a little slowly. But the story ends with a dilemma that is familiar to us today, in a different guise—how much present-day technological convenience are we willing to give up, to avoid future disaster?
Finally, The Dynostar Menace. The eponymous Dynostar is an experimental fusion reactor, built aboard an orbiting space habitat. Just before its commissioning run, evidence comes to light that its magnetic field will destroy the Earth’s ozone layer. This is disappointing hocum, of course—merely a McGuffin to set up a powerful dilemma for the characters. In another layer of McGuffin, the Dynostar is already set to be triggered automatically in a computer-controlled sequence that is difficult to stop safely. (This abdication of responsibility to an automatic computer sequence is rendered even less credible by the revelation, early in the novel, that this story is set after the events described in Brainrack.)
Anyway, the reactor trigger sequence must now be shut down by the crew of the space habitat. Who unfortunately start to be murdered by someone among their number who is determined that the automated Dynostar test go ahead as planned, despite the risk to all life on Earth. Cue the search for the cunning, inventive and psychopathic crew-member.
So we have claustrophobia, mounting paranoia, murders and sabotage, and a race against time. There are tense sequences both within the habitat and in space, and the technical depiction of life aboard a space station was fresh and novel back in 1975, drawing as it did on experience from the then-recent 1973 Skylab missions.
But gad, I hate these extremely cunning and inventive psychopathic scientists. They get to do anything they like for as long as it serves the plot, and then can be relied upon for a homicidal melt-down in the closing sequence. And Pedler and Davis struggle to differentiate their various characters well enough for me to keep them straight in my head, let alone to shift my suspicions from one to another as the story progresses. So this is by far the weakest of the three novels.
All the novels are dated by their science and their social milieu. Hulking mainframe computers, wet-look plastic clothes, gay stereotypes—they’re all in there, as well as the obligatory hysterical woman who just needs a good slap to make her pull herself together. Mutant 59 has lasted best, with an unusual plot which is well-explored. Brainrack gets itself muddled between two plot strands, though the central sequence of the reactor melt-down still works. But Dynostar‘s space setting is nowadays too familiar to sustain interest in an otherwise weary and patchy plot.
So if you want a little glimpse of classic 1970s environmental paranoia, take a look at Mutant 59. You can safely leave the other two in the remaindered bin of history.
* They also cooperated on a slim volume entitled Doomwatch: The World In Danger, containing three short stories based on three Doomwatch episodes. Be warned that this was one of a series of early reading texts from Longman’s, known as “Structural Readers”, and so is written in a style not too distant from “Look, John, look. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” This renders it pretty much unreadable, paradoxically enough.
† What Pedler and Davis call a “China Accident” is now more commonly known by the name China Syndrome, a term that was popularized by a 1979 film of the same name. The molten reactor core burns through the base of the containment vessel and burrows into the ground beneath—fancifully, it keeps going until it passes right through the Earth and reaches China. (Which tells us that the term was coined in America.)