Nerves, a near-future extrapolation of a technological development, is much in the vein of Robert Heinlein’s future history stories, especially “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), which also depicts a major technological innovation beset with disaster. Considering that del Rey published a version of Nerves in Astounding Stories in 1942, a few years before the first atomic bomb and many years before any commercial application of atomic power, it is a remarkable projection.
Throughout the 1940’s and subsequent decades, del Rey published widely in several science-fiction subgenres and was an influential editor. Nerves is typical of his ability to present smoothly the social implications of a new technology. In that regard, his novel is classic American science fiction—the integration of Jules Verne’s fascination with plausible scientific hardware and H. G. Wells’s social speculation.
The atomic science in the novel is obviously dated. Del Rey presents atomic radiation as dangerous, though not nearly as dangerous as later evidence revealed it to be, and he does not consider the possibility of genetic damage. Finally, the stable super-heavy isotopes do not exist outside del Rey’s imagination.
Del Rey presents the social level largely through stereotypical characters: the plain-spoken “doc,” the loyal wife, the unproven physician, the harried plant owner, the egotistical scientist, and so on. He employs these clichés well to move the story along and illustrate the theme.
The theme of Nerves is exactly that—a test of nerves. The people who have a background in science confront the crisis with courage and resolve; their knowledge, dedication, and optimism enable them to cope. Del Rey does not trust the masses. Although the people of Kimberly have benefited greatly from the atomic plant— there would hardly be a Kimberly without it—they become opposed to science at any hint that something has gone wrong. As rumors spread, social order outside the plant collapses.
Nerves has value in reminding readers of changes in attitudes toward atomic power. History has presented near disaster at Three Mile Island and outright calamity at Chernobyl, even though these facilities were supposedly carefully regulated and controlled. It boggles the mind to consider what would have resulted if atomic energy had developed without regulation or control. The casual approach to atomic power makes Nerves seem quaint.