Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald
Signet Books, 1959
Price I paid: $1.25
OFFICER X-127 IS 4000 FEET UNDERGROUND
He is safe from nuclear war…safe from sunshine, blue skies, and love. His perpetual assignment is the Bomb―to stand guard ready to push the button that will turn the world into a charred ember of smoking death…
Once again I have accidentally stumbled onto a Very Important Book.
You can’t blame me for thinking otherwise. I don’t exactly Google every book I find at the used-book store to see if it’s noteworthy. I just kind of wing it. Likewise, I don’t tend to look them up before I start reading. It doesn’t seem fair. Still, here I am, reviewing a book that warrants its own Wikipedia page.
The cover of this Signet edition is just goofy enough to have made me think the book is basically some kind of pulp hilarity. Photographic collages like this one just don’t work for me, and my prejudice shows through when I think about it. Most importantly, the back of the book has this guy on it,
and you can’t tell me that guy’s not hilarious.
But no, it turns out this book is a classic of anti-war fiction! And it’s good! It’s very good!
I should have been alerted to this possibility by the fact that the book has two blurbs on the back, written by none other than Linus freakin’ Pauling and Bertrand freakin’ Russell, respectively. I wish I could tell you why I chose not to take those blurbs seriously. I don’t know the answer to that. It’s probably because I was distracted by that man in a coat doing the Twist.
I started to think something good was happening as soon as I started, though. It’s not because the book has an explosive opening line (no pun intended), it’s just a weird feeling I sometimes get. You probably get it too. It’s that feeling of falling into the text, not because it’s especially good or anything, but because it flows into your brain so well. Like you and the author are in some kind of mutual…thingy. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the opposite of that feeling I’ve addressed before, the one where it feels like a book has a sort of repulsion force keeping your attention away from reading. I expect the rest of my life is going to be an effort to describe and/or explain these experiences.
I did get a feeling of affection for the author after reading the slyly self-derogatory note at the beginning, where he thanked “Jonathan Price for translating the original manuscript from my English into English.” That made me chuckle. Of course, it’s important to realize that Mordecai Roshwald was born in Ukraine and raised in Israel, so there’s a solid chance that English was his third or fourth language.
Our hero is X-127. We never learn his real name. He, and everyone else in the book, is referred to only by a letter-number combination. This leads to one of the most incredible things about this book: Even though the protagonist is utterly dehumanized from the get-go, he was nonetheless one of the most convincing humans I’ve ever shared a point of view with.
This was, I think, utterly intentional. Nothing about this book tells us anything about where our hero is from, what country he’s working for, or anything. It’s not even clear that the aggressors are the United States and Russia, although it’s heavily implied. One of them might be China, I guess. It could just as easily be The Netherlands and New Zealand, for all we know. The book could take place anywhere, anywhen. It’s 100% transparent and sometimes I got the feeling that the author was jumping through some hoops to make sure we didn’t form any kind of national attachment to the characters, but it never grated. It worked beautifully.
We’re reading X-127’s diary. He’s living in a deep hole in the ground, 4400 feet deep, to be precise. It’s an underground bunker complex, and he lives there with about 500 other people. X-127’s purpose is to press the fateful button when the time comes. It’s the button that destroys the enemy utterly. Actually it’s a series of escalating buttons, but the principle is the same. He’s one of four people with this task. The others are X-107, X-117, and X-137.
All the other people in the bunker exist just to make sure that these four people can carry out the task. They’re food producers, psychologists, doctors, maintenance workers, and so forth. They have another purpose, though. Once the deed has been done, these 500 people will need to repopulate the world.
The deed is, of course, all-out thermonuclear heck.
A lot of the book, seeing as how it’s in the form of a diary, consists of describing the situation and how X-127 feels about it. It’s largely exposition, but the format makes that work just fine. It takes him a lot of getting used to, and his feelings are generally negative. He doesn’t mind so much the isolation or the incredibly bland food so much as he just wants to see the sun shine one last time. He knows this will never happen.
The bunker is set to sustain life for about 500 years. Even if the war never comes, he’s down there for life.
There are other bunkers, we learn. X-127 is on Level 7, hence the title of the book. The other six levels contain other sorts of people. Level 6, for instance, houses the military’s defensive forces. (Level 7 is strictly offensive.) Level 5 contains the societal elite, and so on. Interestingly, Level 2 consists entirely of such rabble-rousers as peace activists and champions of free speech. This was decided, basically, to make them shut up.
A lot of X-127’s free time is spent learning about his and the other levels. What’s perpetually engrained into him is that Level 7 is the best level. It’s better than outside by a long shot, but even the other levels don’t have anything on Level 7. It’s the most important, therefore it’s the most well-protected. It’ll support life for 500 years! None of the other levels come anywhere near that. If anybody survives, it’ll be Level 7, and that’s good and proper because Level 7 deserves it the most.
This kind of thing gets so thick that X-127 even starts helping to develop a new mythology to tell children, once children are born, as they should within the next year. It’s early in the book when the institution of marriage is created for this new world. It’s particularly interesting because the people on Level 7 were chosen largely because they didn’t form long-term deep relationships with people while they were out in the upper world. After all, the direst situation would require X-127 and his colleagues to literally wipe out all life on Earth, and the Powers That Be didn’t want them thinking about how they were killing their own families in the meantime.
It was very interesting to note that, had the book not ended in the way it did, it would have been a novel of the founding of a Brave New World-esque dystopia, which is something I’d really like to read. One doesn’t often get to read a dystopian novel from the point of view of the people who set it all up.
X-127 marries a psychiatrist named P-867 and things are generally okay for a while. Then the war starts.
X-127’s role in the war is very simple. He is given orders to push buttons, and then he pushes those buttons. So one day he’s sitting at his post when the order comes in to push the first button. He does it. More orders start pouring in to start pushing the other buttons, escalating the conflict. He continues to do so. He acts quickly, efficiently, and without emotion.
The war takes place over two hours and fifty-eight minutes. The world is destroyed, and X-127 doesn’t really have anything to do anymore. His job is done. This puts him into a bit of a fugue. One of his colleagues, X-117, hangs himself because he can’t bear being the executioner of the entire world. X-127 doesn’t really understand where he’s coming from, but he’s human enough that this causes him anxiety. He doesn’t want to be a monster. Nevertheless, he’s done something monstrous. The most monstrous thing. And he was just following orders, without thinking. Doing exactly what he was trained to do. If you’re trained to be a monster, does that make you a monster? What if you had little to no say in the matter?
Level 7, which until this point was completely cut off from the rest of the world, is placed into radio contact with the other levels. We learn that The Other Side started the conflict by launching twelve missiles, although it claimed that the launches were due to a technical error and begged Our Side not to retaliate. Our side did not comply and responded in kind with 200 missiles. The Other Side responded to that with even more missiles, and so on until there was nothing left. The final step was a series of bombs wrapped in a special radioactive casing that, when exploded, would cause even more fallout than a regular nuclear bomb. It was supposed to be the ultimate deterrant, and it was used almost immediately.
The government folks in Level 5 continue to argue with their counterparts on The Other Side about who started it, whose fault it was, and who won. It’s all so believable that I wanted to cry.
And even later it comes out that the entire war was carried out based on automated responses. X-127 and his associates were the only human links in the entire chain of computer commands that led to the destruction of the world.
Nobody seems to know how long the world will stay irradiated. Our Side and The Other Side refuse to tell each other what kinds of radioactive agents they used, specifically whether they used uranium, plutonium, strontium, or thorium, or something else. They both argue that it’s a state secret that they can’t risk the enemy using against them. Both sides agree to talk about it just as soon as the other goes first.
News goes out about some intrepid explorers from Level 3 who leave their vault to explore. They die within a few days.
Even worse, news starts to come in that radiation sickness is starting to affect the other levels. Level 1 goes first, as you’d expect since it’s only about fifty feet underground, and with every successive level we are left to wonder when all this will stop. Will it reach Level 7? After all, it was meant to be entirely self-contained and self-sufficient, whereas the upper levels simply pumped in and filtered their air and water from the surface.
One day Level 6 goes silent. Likewise, The Other Side goes silent too. It’s increasingly apparent that Level 7 now consists of the final members of humanity.
And then something goes wrong with the atomic reactor and everyone on Level 7 gets sick, too. X-127 holds out until the very end. He’s the last human being to die.
Yeah, this book is depressing as hell. Did you expect it not to be? For heaven’s sake, it’s dedicated “To Dwight and Nikita.”
(I didn’t link those names because I thought that you, my favorite reader, wouldn’t be able to figure it out, but for the people who aren’t you who might have taken an extra few seconds and lost the flow of the review. You understand, I’m sure.)
Apparently, the original manuscript began with X-127’s diary being found by Martian archaeologists investigating the destruction of the Earth, but that part was removed when someone decided that it gave away the ending. I totally get that, and I expect a lot would have been lost, but on the other hand, at no point did I think that this book would have a happy ending.
I guess my biggest criticism of the book is that it was a moral fable that wasn’t giving me any kind of moral I wasn’t already aware of. Nuclear War is bad, yes. I get it. I was just eight when the Soviet Union dissolved, but that was plenty of time for me to get a nice dose of paranoia about ’em. I’m pretty sure I never had to do a duck-and-cover drill, but still.
And now that our Dipshit-in-Chief is hollering across the Pacific practically declaring war 280 characters at a time, the book took on a new significance. But still, not one that I wasn’t already aware of.
Still, it’s not fair of me to judge it on that merit. It was written in ’59 and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction was likely not on many minds, especially those of War Hawks. The policy itself, I read here, wasn’t even a concern of the government’s until a few years after this book was published. Still, this book certainly understood the idea of deterrence in some form. It was, at one point in the novel, pointed out that the enemy knew full well about the likelihood of survival of Level 7, and would therefore not risk full-on war knowing that their hated foe would likely be the one to inherit the Earth. Of course, it was revealed near the end that the Enemy had the same plan, and it didn’t work for them either.
And, of course, there’s the fact that I’m particularly sensitive to these kinds of matters. I’m not singling myself out. I imagine that every single person reading this review is right there with me. It’s largely because we’re all readers, and particularly sf readers. We know that any kind of nuclear exchange is not going to be a matter of “we struck first, so we won.” It’s a disaster for everybody. The problem is, it seems that folks like us don’t get elected and make policies and decide how many missiles to produce in a given year. I guess that’s the scary part.
This book should be required reading, but honestly I’d be happy if the people in power read anything.
7 thoughts on “Level 7”
I was taught to duck and cover 3 years after the publication date of this book. Adult decisions about nuclear weapons seemed insane (children, apart from their magical thinking and tendency to take on preposterous guilt, are the ultimate pragmatists); my opinion of those in power has not changed considerably in the intervening decades.
I haven’t chewed off all my fingernails while reading a personal account of WWII cryptography this week (Between Silk and Cyanide), so I think I’ll
dedicate the rest of them to Level 7.
I know the feeling you mean. I’ve always thought of it as getting into the book’s world, versus feeling like your on the outside the entire time. It’s frustratingly subjective whether it happens or not, sometimes. American Gods is meant to be a classic, but I spent the entire time I was reading it feeling like I was watching events through a thick glass or something.
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Level 7 was the most honest and least hopeful of an entire genre of nuclear war fiction. I remember being the only person in my school, town, and possibly county to be reading them in the early sixties. I had an unholy fascination with the prospect, probably like the feeling horror fans get. I wouldn’t know that for certain, since I refuse to read horror. There is enough real horror in the world, that seeking out zombies seems too dumb to contemplate.
FYI, among the most notable of the pack, L7 was the most real, On The Beach made nuclear war boring, and Philip Wylie’s two books Triumph and Tomorrow kept enough hope alive that they read like a WWII the-Nazis-are-coming-but-some-of-us-will-survive novels.
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I also really enjoyed this book, but I think the problems highlighted in Level 7 run a lot deeper than whatever our current administration is doing. I think Roshwald’s point in obfuscating which government X-127 belonged to, was to show that there were willing button-mashers like him in every country that had these weapons. Our decades-long neglect of the nuclear proliferation problem, especially since the last real opportunity in 1991, is the real tragedy here.
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For whatever reason, I was looking at your review of “A Typical Male” and found this:
“The problem with this is that when the stakes are so large, they might be unrelatable. In most cases we, the readers, will feel that the victory of the protagonists is all but set in stone, simply because very few authors would have the guts to take on a story where the heroes fail and the world around them ends. When that does happen, it’s pretty great, or so I imagine because I can’t think of any specific examples.”
… we have a winner!
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Haha, nailed it!