Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1972)
We live in a plastic world. Take a moment to look around you and note how many things are made of or include plastic components. Go on. I'll wait.
A pretty large number, isn't it? From my desk where I type on a plastic keyboard in front of a plastic monitor connected to a computer by plastic-coated wires to a computer made up of plastic bits and pieces I can see plastic bottles, a plastic lamp, plastic telephones, a plastic camping lantern, plastic boxes, plastic wrappers, plastic carpeting, plastic paint on the wall, plastic laminate on the desk, plastic soles on my shoes, plastic picture frames with plastic "glass", my clothing is partly plastic and even some the furniture is held together with plastic bits. And that's just what I can see at a glance. There's plastic everywhere. Step into a commercial airliner and the passenger cabin is a plastic tube with plastic fittings. Some planes are made entirely of plastic; as are boats, cars, and... the list goes on and on.
In fact, it's scary. Why scary? Because we are utterly dependent on plastics. It's replaces a phenomenal number of materials and many things we take for granted today couldn't be made out of anything else except plastic. That's true today and it was true back in 1972 when plastics had only been in truly common use for about ten years. That was when the writing team of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis asked the question: What would happen if all that plastic suddenly went away. And thus was born Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters.
The premise of Mutant 59 is simple. Owing to an improbable chain of events, a bacteria is created that is able to feed off plastic. At first, it's only a few types, but the bacteria was designed to mutate at a very high rate in order to modify it faster and when its inventor dies suddenly of a brain aneurism, Mutant Strain No. 59 is accidentally released into the sewers of London. There it quickly evolves to eat more and more types of plastic as it seeps from the sewer into the London Underground and from there into the fantastic underground maze of pipe, wires, cables, and tunnels that keep London alive. Oh, and the bacteria gives off explosive hydrogen gas, which doesn't help matters.
Thrown into this is the Dr. Luke Gerrard of the Kramer Group, a scientific development company whose plastic Aminostyrene has been linked to several bizarre accidents including the loss of an Apollo spacecraft. What begins as a few horrific, but seemingly unconnected incidents soon becomes a major crisis as the bacteria eats into the plastic of London. As Gerrard, Anne Krammer (wife of the head of the group) and computer scientist Lionel Slayter go to investigate another plastics failure in the Underground, the crisis suddenly goes over the tipping point as they are trapped by a gigantic explosion that cuts them off from teh surface. As they try to escape with what they've learned about the bacteria, the British government works frantically to contain the infection before it can spread outside of the dying city.
Mutant 59 is an excellent example of the British specialty; the quiet catastrophe. By altering one small part of the normal world, removing plastic, Pedler and Davis set into motion a series of events that wreck ever-expanding circles of devastation. As plastic insulation vanishes, wires spark and fires break out. Airliners crash or explode in midair. Submarines vanish. Gas leaks from sealless lines. The entire infrastructure of London literally decays. It's a truly frightening scenario that makes one realise just how the failure of something we take for granted can imperil our entire civilisation.
Along with the disaster, Pedlar and Davis intertwine a somewhat soap opera plot about Gerrard fighting his fellow scientists in a bid to get them to forsake profit for social responsibility as well as his growing attraction for Anne, who is neglected by her husband. This has something of a tacked on feel because it never really rises to the urgency of the plastic-eating emergency, but it does help to nail the story to the human element so that it never devolves into a catalogue of sufferings or a multiple points of view story without anyone for the reader to identify with.
Based on Pedlar and Davis's script for the first episode of the 1970 television series Doomwatch, Mutant 59 is a very good adaptation and expansion on the theme that improves on the original and stands as one of the better examples of its subgenre.