Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1971)

Pedler and Davis

This is a hugely enjoyable, trashy but compelling sci-fi shocker, written by the scriptwriting duo of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The story of the their writing partnership is interesting in itself:

Christopher Pedler was a British medical scientist, science fiction author and general science. He was head of the electron microscopy department at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University of London, when he was invited in the mid-1960s to contribute to the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World.

As a result of proving to be media-friendly, he went on to become the unofficial scientific adviser to the Doctor Who production team. It was here that he met and formed a writing partnership with Gerry Davis, the programme’s story editor.

Their interest in the way modern science was changing and endangering human life led them to collaborate on a number of scripts and storylines. Probably their most notable achievement was to jointly create the Cybermen, the second most popular monsters on Dr Who (after the Daleks).

In the late 1960s they devised and co-wrote a new science fiction TV series for the BBC, Doomwatch, which ran from 1970 to 1972. Doomwatch covered the work of a fictional government department that was set up to fight the increasing threat of technological and environmental disasters.

I watched the original series back in 1970 and remember to this day the scary special effects in the very first episode of series one, The Plastic Eaters. This episode set the tone of technology run wild creating worldwide disaster and was so popular that Davis and Pedler then turned it into the 1971 novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters.

Mutant 59

Unsurprisingly, the book shows all the signs of having been written in a hurry – it is not very well proof-read, and the science and technology bits often feel cut and pasted into gaps between the exciting ‘adventure’ scenes.

Nonetheless, I found it so gripping – in a ripping yarns sort of way – that I literally couldn’t put it down. I picked it up in the ‘library’ of a small hotel where I was staying, started to read the opening chapter about 11.30 pm and then found I couldn’t stop, reading the entire book through until 3.30 in the morning – much to my regret the next day.

The plot is simple: a man-made bacterium starts eating plastic, all plastic, everywhere. Incidents occur around the world, but the heart of the infection is in London and during the course of the novel, central London is cordoned off by the army who erect decontamination centres at key gateways in and out.

It takes a while for this basic fact to really emerge clearly because, to begin with, it seems more as if a new super-plastic created by a trendy technology company is at fault. The firm is run by go-getting American, Arnold Kramer, whose beautiful wife, tough independent journalist Anne, has just discovered he is having an affair. Kramer has recently hired from Canada a tall, handsome scientist named Luke Gerrard, who is to emerge from the rather confused opening scenes as the hero.

Together Kramer’s company had pioneered a tough new form of plastic, shown to resist anything and sold it to companies around the world. It is components made from this plastic which fail in the opening pages of the book, with disastrous results for

a) an Apollo 19 space mission which explodes as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere
b) BEA flight 510 which crashes into a suburban street on its approach to Heathrow with devastating results (a genuinely harrowing description of the death and destruction caused by a plane crashing into an inhabited area)
c) the loss of a British nuclear submarine
d) the failure of a an experimental new computerised traffic system, which brings chaos and – again – death to the area around Kensington

Enquiries are started in Whitehall into the submarine loss and into the road traffic fiasco. In the latter we are introduced to the architect of the traffic scheme, Slayter, who has been developing the scheme for years and is puzzled and upset that it fails on its first day. The book is also quite persuasive about the bureaucracy of the civil servants who had commissioned the traffic scheme and how they all blame each other when it goes wrong. There are scenes set in Whitehall meeting rooms where various officials report to the head of the enquiry, and a good description of the in-house feuding led by the senior government official, Atherton who had always been against the scheme and now takes his revenge in a quiet bureaucratic sort of way.

Meanwhile, at Kramer’s consultancy we meet not only him, the wife Anne and Luke, but several of the other scientists. We learn that they had not only developed a type of plastic which lasts forever – the type which was used to insulate wires in the space ship, submarine and traffic system, the meting of which cause all the catastrophes. We now learn that they had also been working on a type of plastic designed to decompose when exposed to a chemical they’ve developed. The motive for this was the ever-increasing mountains of disused plastic which are cluttering up the Western world. The plastic-eating chemical might have any number of applications, for example a little sachet might be built into plastic drinks bottles sold in supermarkets. When you’ve drunk the drink, pull a little pin, the chemical is released and the plastic decomposes in front of your eyes.

It takes a while for all this to emerge because the first 50 or 60 pages of the book are quite confusing. The failure of the moon shot, the findings of the nuclear sub enquiry, the Whitehall arguments about the road traffic fiasco and so on all create a compelling sense of foreboding and menace, and the reader is happy to be carried along on a wave of suspense – but it also results in quite a blizzard of names, with some 30 characters being introduced and no clear sense of who, if anyone, is the ‘lead’.

The tube adventure

It is only about a third into the book that the central part of the narrative kicks off and this is the part which kept me up half the night. What happens is that members of the two enquiries going on in Whitehall (into the traffic and nuclear sub accidents) bump into each other, as jolly Whitehall types do, and begin to realise that the incidents all have something in common, something to do with the failure of the plastic lining of the electrical wiring.

Thus the plastics man sent along by Kramer – hunky Luke Gerrard – gets chatting to traffic scheme designer, Slayter, a practical no-nonsense man after his own heart – in a smoky 1970s pub. they put two and two together and start wondering where else plastic insulation is widely used. Turns out they’ve recently done a job to rewire the London Underground system. Hmmm.

Gerrard raises all this when he reports back to the board of Kramer Consulting. He suggests he rings up their contact in London Underground and goes to inspect the cables for himself. Anne Kramer (big Kramer’s cheated wife) is in the meeting and, being a go-getting journalist, insists on coming along. Gerrard rings up Slayter, who he took a shine to in the pub, and asks him if he wants to come, too.

Thus it is that this trio – Gerrard, Slayter, Anne – are met by several Underground officials who take them underground, initially along a live Tube rail line, and then off into some of the huge number of unused branch lines running off it, all with a view to examining the new wiring.

Here they do indeed discover that the plastic insulation around the wires carrying electricity along the lines of tube tunnels is melting. But they’ve barely made this discovery before there is a catastrophe. The process of plastic decomposition releases CO2 and methane, and a lot of this has built up in the Tube system without anyone realising it. Our heroes are carefully approaching a tube station where a train has stopped with a view to climbing up onto the platform, when there is the most enormous explosion and a ball of flame rips through the carriages and platform, turning people into human torches as they watch.

They try to save some of the victims but are forced back by the heat, running back to the last carriage on the train, through the door and down onto the rail, running as fast as they can to escape the fireball.

The CO2 is so widespread in the system that the explosion they witness turns out to be only one of a series of explosions which blow holes in main roads, kill passing pedestrians, making cars explode and generally introducing mayhem into central London.

In the rush to escape our heroes find that they have acquired a bossy military man in civvies, another guy and a blonde secretary, who also fled down the Tube line after them.

Unable to go back to the platform where a big fire is now burning, our heroes discover that if they continue down the track it dips and… is being slowly filled with poisonous heavier-than-air CO2. They find this out the hard way when Slayter and one of the Tube men go that way. The Tube man suddenly grows weak and faints and when Slayter bends to help him he too is very quickly overcome by poisonous fumes and is only just able to turn and stagger back up the slope of the tunnel, arriving back at the others weak, sick and close to death.

So this little troup of survivors can’t go back to the burning Tube station or forward down into the CO2-filled tunnel. Are there any other exits? This is where it comes in handy that throughout the process they have been guided by an old station master. Yes, he knows some old tunnels off to the side of the one they’re in. Although it turns out that he’s quite an old guy, nearing retirement, and all this excitement and activity isn’t good for his old ticker.

And thus begins their long, perilous and thrilling trek through the forgotten backways of the Tube – a subterranean odyssey which reminds me of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen or Bilbo Baggins’ lost adventures in the caves under the Misty Mountains, not to mention several classic Dr Who episodes set in the Tube.

Underground journeys through great peril go back, I suppose to Dante in the Inferno, and via him to Aeneas being shown the underworld, or back to Orpheus’s adventures in Hades. There is something very profound, very deep, in the most obvious sense, about being lost underground.

Not only could I not put the book down but I became genuinely scared as our heroes have to overcome a whole series of unexpected perils and trials. The door from my bedroom into the hallway was ajar showing a big black nothingness. The book gripped and scared me so thoroughly that I had to get up and switch on the hall light, so powerful was the sense of creeping terror.

Anyway, so by this stage we have the classic Disaster Movie scenario of a selection of random citizens who find themselves at the mercy of the increasingly unwell old station-master. He leads them on a complicated journey through the Tube network, into side tunnels and into disused old stations (notably Gray’s Inn station), encountering hazards all along the way. For example there’s a tunnel which he thinks leads out, and they can certainly feel a draught and fresh air coming up it but – it is half-filled with water above which are hanging some powerful electricity cables now stripped of their insulation. If the cables touch the water ZAP!

As in all these kinds of stories the bad-tempered military man insists on taking the risk of going into the water, despite everything the decent chaps – Gerrard and Slayter do to try and prevent him. Military bully persuades the weak-minded secretary to go with him, while Slayter and Gerrard manage to restrain Anne. Guess what happens to the military man and his follower… Yes. ZAP!

Alas, the old station master’s heart disease gets worse as the adventure progresses and our guys eventually have to abandon him in a large open space they’ve discovered, promising to come back and get him. Going on, they discover a big brick room with fresh tea and sandwiches incongruously laid out in it. They realise maintenance men had been at work here when the explosions happened. Good. They have only recently left and have… locked the steel door behind them. Bad 😦

However, the workmen abandoned some up to date acetylene torches behind them, good 🙂 But Slayter and Gerrard realise that the oxygen at the bottom of the room is being replaced by CO2 and that using the torches will use up even more. Bad 😦

Their further adventures include the completely unexpected return of the half-burned and wholly mad military man resurrected like a zombie, and climax in a final, almost impossible climb up a hundred foot, sheer-sided air shaft. It all reminded me very much of the movie The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and any number of other Escaping Disaster narratives.

Sex and friendship

To nobody’s surprise the independent, intelligent journalist Anne Kramer, who has just discovered her husband is cheating on her, finds herself strangely attracted to tall, rugged, decisive Luke. Fancy that!

At one point they are climbing a ladder and he looks up to see her white panties. Hm. At another, they have got soaked crossing through water and all strip down to their undies in order to dry their clothes in front of a makeshift fire, Anne, of course, stripping down to wet panties and to a clinging bra which shows her large brown nipples. Hmm.

When I was eleven years old this kind of thing titillated me no end as it was more or less the only form of erotic description you could access anywhere. Years later I can see it for the highly formulaic level of titillation required in this kind of adventure.

Just as formulaic but more enjoyable is the bromance between Gerrard and Slater. They share different but complementary types of scientific and technological insight so that they not only have to escape through the various underground hazards but between them begin to cobble together an explanation for what is going on with the melting plastic. (Maybe the teamwork between this clever, literate pair of scientists reflects something of the camaraderie of Pedler and Davis themselves?) Both think it is something to do with the new super-plastic developed and widely sold by Kramer’s consultancy.

the true source of mutant 59

But they are wrong. The plot takes a massive swerve in the middle of the narrative, when the narrator completely switches the time and setting of the story in order to give us the true cause of the melting plastic.

Turns out it was a completely different scientist, employed by a commercial company on unrelated work, who one day was irritated to discover his mains drains blocked by plastic toys thrown away by his children and, not for the first time, wondered whether he could concoct a bacterium which would eat plastic.

So he sets about creating a mini-lab in his own house, using materials filched from work. He systematically works through a set of variations on the most likely candidate, exposing each sample to varying degrees of radiation from radioactive cobalt in order to produce a plastic-eating mutation.

Now it just so happens that this scientist has a brain aneurism and, at the very moment when he discovers that variation 59 of his experiments does seem to be a potent eater of the small sample of plastic he has placed in the petrie dish – at that very moment his excitement at the discovery makes the aneurysm rupture, he collapses dead on the spot, and drops the petrie dish – plus its brand-new plastic-eating bacterium – into the nearby sink, where it oozes into the public drainage system and towards the local sewerage works.

This is a very convenient plot device, because it means that nobody knows where the plastic-eating bacterium comes from, and so there is no-one to sound the alert, or to blame.

So – I asked myself at about 2.30 in the morning – why the hell have we been so elaborately introduced to Kramer Consultants and their plastic sheaths? Because, it turns out, the substance which Kramers have created which degrades in sunlight – this turns out to be a kind of superfood for Mutant 59.

And since people have been drinking drinks and eating eats made from the new biodegradable plastic and then chucking it down the drains – the drainage system of London has become packed to the hilt with plastic-eating bacteria.

Not only that, but Mutant 59 is itself mutating at an astonishing speed, becoming more and more efficient.

And not only that but the by-product of the eaten plastic is the highly flammable gas methane. Hence the massive explosions in the Tube network. Hence smaller explosions in private residences all over the capital.

Civilisation collapses

So much for the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the narrative. Any good sci-fi disaster story has to follow through the consequences of its disastrous premise, that’s part of the fun of the genre. And so we are treated to extensive descriptions of the collapse of the complex infrastructure lying under the feet of all Londoners, and ghoulishly enjoyable descriptions of what happens when it all melts and blows up.

The book is set in winter so the quick result of all this melting and exploding is the cessation of power, light and communications. The government assumes emergency powers. The army cordons off central London and sets up decontamination centres at key gateways, where citizens are stripped and deloused – all in a bid to prevent the bacterium travelling beyond central London and, potentially, around the world.

Obviously what policemen in novels refer to as ‘the criminal fraternity’ see a golden opportunity in all this and now we are introduced to three hardened crooks based in Soho who do a job on a West End jewellers.

Having had the true story of the origin of mutant 59 explained – and the resulting ‘social collapse’ painted in some detail (there’s a meeting of the Emergency Committee where we are introduced to officials from the Army, the Police, the water board, the sewage people, London Transport, food organisation civil servants, and so on and so on, at considerable length, with each one given a name and the chance to make a page-long speech about how their department is coping with the crisis) the slightly exhausted reader returns to the adventures of Anne and Luke and Slayter.

Long story short, due to Gerrard’s heroism and tough Canadian physique, he manages to climb up the air shaft, find the authorities, get Anne and Slayter (and the station master they had abandoned way back) all freed from the Underground and taken to hospital. And, after a brief spell in hospital, he calls an emergency meeting of the Kramer Consultancy scientists with Slayter attending.

The cure

I like the way that, throughout the book there is a large cast (confusing but realistic) and that we see them routinely arguing and bickering, just like real adults in all organisations do. The members of Kramer’s consultancy are at particular loggerheads, and it doesn’t help that their boss has been summoned to America to testify in front of a NASA committee looking into the Apollo space disaster.

With him out of the way, we watch the half dozen or so other members of the consultancy argue like ferrets in a sack about whether the disaster is their fault (for creating the biodegradable plastic), whether the company has lost its original altruistic intentions in the rush to make money and all join in criticising the character of their (absent) founder, Kramer himself. I liked all this bickering, it felt realistic, and it certainly felt realistic the way it hampers Gerrard from getting them to agree on any concerted effort to solve the problem.

Gerrard’s badgering finally gets the original designer of the degradable plastic to think aloud about possible solutions, and I liked the collegiate way team then collaborate, with accelerating excitement, towards a possible solution. This is to design a variant of the degradable plastic which replaces one of its polymers with the strongest poison they can find, a variety of industrial arsenic. The aim: to get the hungry mutant to gorge on poisonous plastic and wipe itself out.

Overnight the chemist creates a tiny amount of this experimental poisonous plastic in the lab and next morning they all crowd round to watch its action on a sample of Mutant 59 in the petrie dish. Mutant 59 gobbles it all up and then – dies!

OK, so how to distribute it? Another of the scientists suggests they could combine it with a petrol-based aerosol to create a spray. I liked all this. I particularly liked the way the little group of scientists, technicians and engineers go from squabbling among themselves to all falling into line with the new project, as their scientific enthusiasm trumps bitching.

So they contact the production company who had produced the original decomposable plastic for them, who quickly produce several canisters of the poison-plastic.

Gerrard goes out with an army team, all dressed up in biohazard suits, to the shabby quarters of some old proles who live in Soho. This hapless pair had recently reported to the authorities that the foul-smelling foam of post-plastic-eaten bacteria was swarming up through their sink drain,  onto the counter and floor, eating all the plastic in sight.

The proles, as well as Gerrard and the posh officer in charge of the unit, all watch in amazement as they spray the foam and – it works! Covering the foul foam with a shiny patina which the bacteria greedily eat and then – die – hardening into dead crusty flakes and ceasing to eat plastic.

The crisis is solved.

But not before one final piece of poetic justice. Kramer had taken a flight to America before full quarantine conditions had been applied. He has – with heavy inevitability – of course taken a fragment of Mutant 59 with him, attached to his plastic pen.

This allows the authors to paint a gruesomely enjoyable vision of the bacteria quickly spreading throughout all parts of the plane, from the galley to the flight deck, through the plastic insulation on the plane windows and along all the insulated electric wires which festoon a modern jet plane, as Kramer himself, then the air stewardess, then the flight crew realise that their plane is literally melting around them!

I think the teenage reader is then meant to feel there is a poetic justice about the way that, despite alerting the air crew and taking every precaution, the plane disintegrates and blows up in mid-air, killing the adulterer Kramer. He was, after all, a Bad Man, responsible for turning the consultancy he set up to solve the world’s technological problems into a capitalist money-making machine, concerned only with profit – tut tut – and an adulterer into the bargain.

Environmental issues

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater is a great sci-fi romp for teenagers of all ages, for anyone who enjoyed the old Dr Who with its cardboard sets. It is badly written and the plot creaks with holes and improbabilities – and yet the atmosphere of fear, terror and menace which it creates kept me up half the night. I found it riveting.

But having put it down and got over my terror, the most grown-up thought it gave me was about the sheer antiquity of its environmental concerns. Pedler became disillusioned with the way technology and science were degrading the world’s environment in the late 1960s. Fifty years ago.

The driving force for both the rogue scientist in developing his plastic-eating bacteria and for Kramer’s consultancy in creating a biodegradable form of plastic, was that both groups knew that the world was producing too much plastic.

The world was choking in plastic.

Fifty years ago they were writing fictions about pollution by plastic. Nearly fifty years ago I read sci-fi novels, articles, watched documentaries and adventure series about it. For fifty years anybody who watched kids TV or read pop sci-fi novels has known this is an issue. Why has it only become a political issue now, fifty years too late?

How can people be so ignorant as to think that this is a new and urgent issue? It was new and urgent fifty years ago. Where have they been hiding, what have they been reading, how can they not know this?

Biology trumps ecology

Seen from this point of view – from an environmental point of view – the ‘relationship’ between tall strong Gerrard and fit and fertile Anne is capable of another, broader, social interpretation.

It shows that the sex drive of individual humans hugely outweighs broader social considerations. The blindingly feverish lust between two people widens like ripples in a pond from mutual obsession, to a lesser consideration of the impact of their affair on those around them (spouses, children, family), to a vague awareness of what the neighbours will think, and finally to indifference to the opinions of, or impact on, the billions of nameless souls who make up the world’s population.

Thousands of poems and novels reinforce the idea that our passions, here and now, the quick hot infatuation of lust, of present pleasure, of present convenience, are all that matter – blinding us to wider concerns.

Thus the brown nipples and white panties of the Gerrard-Anne affair can stand as a symbol of the profound selfishness which we are all biologically heirs to, the immediacy of present appetites which make us buy a bottle of water or sweets or sandwiches packaged in plastic, whenever we need to, and chuck away the wrapping and bottle, with no thought for the consequences.

It is ironic that two and a half thousand years of Western philosophers have emphasised the mindfulness and rationality of human beings, when all the evidence suggests the opposite – the extreme heedlesness and indifference of human beings to anything beyond the pleasure of the moment.

Fifty years after Pedler and Davis wrote this novel to alert its readers to the ruinous excess of plastic which was strangling the natural world. During that half century the situation has gone from bad to catastrophic, the seas are more polluted than ever, the birds are strangled in plastic netting, the fish die of poisonous plastic, there is barely a drop of water anywhere on the planet now which does not contain microscopic particles.

The thirst for comfort and convenience hard wired into each and every one of us always trumps the very abstract, unmeasurable sense of our impact on the wider environment. Biology always trumps ecology I thought, as I put the book down, turned off the light, and shivered with fear.

BBC documentary about the Doomwatch TV series


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