After I finished reading about apocalypse-by-bee, I picked up Level 7, by Mordecai Roshwald. I can not seem to help reading in themes – Herzog’s book wasn’t even the start. When I read these books I was knee deep in a study of Revelations.
Level 7 is a thin, black, hard back published in 1959. My great-grandmother, from whom my grandfather received a large number of his collection, has written a lengthy epistle all over the fronts piece and title page. Her letter made a touching preface, helping me sink back in time to a place where the threat of utter annihilation by bomb was very, very real.
Even with that as a warning, I was still unsure of what the book was for the first few pages. Was this a real life account? Did this actually happen? Only when the main character was sealed up in a sterilized town thousands of miles below the surface of the Earth did I finally feel confident in proclaiming it pure, if informed, fiction.
The sum of the story is simple enough. The main character is a button pusher for the military, trained to launch missiles at The Enemy if the worst should come and they found themselves under attack. He and about 200 other people are more or less tricked into populating an underground safe house where they are told they must pass out their days. The first half of the book is a methodical journal of the daily life of these people. It’s fascinating, but in a morbid kind of way. The 50s were not kind to interpersonal relations, and none of the 200 people feel real. The women are as bad as the men, except they talk more and so expose themselves more openly. No, I take that back. The main character talks the most, and I found myself torn between sympathy, frustration, and amusement over his plight, naivety, and assumptions.
The second half of the book is an equally methodical detailing of the world going to pieces at rocket speed. In case you haven’t already gathered, this is not a cheery, feel good book. Everyone dies: some just die slower than others. And of course the real tragedy is that it’s all for nothing. Well, naturally: if everyone dies this must be so. But even beyond that, the first missile was launched accidentally by a computer – a simple coding error that started a chain reaction of automated destruction. With the amount of thought that went into building these machines, it is not surprising that there was so little left over to design defenses. We take it as a matter of course that none of the precautions put in place to protect civilians from the fall-out worked – the radiation penetrated the shallower shelters and poisoned the water of the deeper stations. But the dernier cri, the ultimate expression of irony, was that our little subterranean town was completely safe from the atomic fallout caused by their actions. They only died of radiation poisoning becasue their nuclear generator developed a leak.
The last pages of the story are written by our doubtful hero as he lies in bed, dying. . . .
It was rather subduing. I’ve always said I was a passivist, not a pacifistic. The idea that selfish people can share a planet without dissolving occasionally into fist fights seems dangerously naive to me. But as I read books like this, and ones like Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams and Wouk’s The Hope, I find war stripped of any younger associations with glory and valor. It can be honorable to fight, I still believe there is a time when we must answer war with war, but even more obvious is the importance of cultivating meekness in our interactions with others. True honor, whether in a conqueror or a servant, comes from humility not pride. From defending another’s rights, not extending the limits of your own. Nobody wins in war. Only when peace means turning a blind eye to human suffering should such a sorry stalemate be sought after.
This was book 2 out of 12 for TBR 2016. Read in March, I’m still currently reading my third book for the challenge – a modern, non-fiction book which is both exotic and exasperatingly familiar. Will I be able to make up my two month deficit? Stay tuned to find out . . . .