The New Old Thing

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 . . . .

The Latest Buzz

Another belated posting of an older piece, this one from mid-January. Spell checked and published to, hopefully, get me back into the thick of things.

It’s a quiet evening, and I have all the weariness you would expect in a body after working and then coming home and washing dishes for an hour. And yet, there is a strange thread in my limbs that is screaming for action. It is this silent, insistent need to create which has sent me here, to drivel across the page. So here I am, driveling away.

It’s a strange task to assign to a list-maker: to wander aimlessly down a page meant for other people to view. No outlines, no matching topic sentences. Just words leading to words leading to . . . well, nowhere really.

It’s so unnatural I just have to stop and fill up space with something. Something like, say, a review of Arthur Heizorg’s The Swarm, a la 1975.

Now here is a book to discuss. It is, in essence, a beach book. A mass market thriller full of the imminent destruction of man kind. Or at least, of people in the USA – for some reason the bees were very respectful of the Canadian border.

  Yes, The Swarm is about bees. Specifically it’s about jumbo, mutated African bees (old adansonii) that have adapted to use plastic in their hive walls in order to survive the winter, and military grade, top secret chemicals in their sting in order to better survive us. Or out survive us, as the characters in the book start to fear. The whole thing should have been one long eyeroll. Instead I feel quite educated. The book is written to be as histor-real as possible, with footnotes scattered throughout to properly cite and defend all scientific information. Real citations, too, or at least this one was. This is a fast paced, high stakes, drama peopled with the lowest of the nerd pool – entomologist, geneticists, chemists, and medical practitioners. And not one person ever bemoaned or otherwise called attention to their narrow, intellectual way of life. In a world in which geek and nerd have become utterly meaningless, I found this refreshing. The atmosphere of the book was excellent.

As an aside: It also had an interesting perspective on females and their position in the world. The token female (she generated maps of the bee invasion) was a highly capable scientist in her own field and yet was continually disrespected and outright ignored by the majority of her peers. Living in a wonderfully uncomplicated subsection of the universe, a large number of social issues seem rather too dramatic to be taken seriously. This kind of understated writing lent credence to a concept I normally find surreal.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and there were some bits of the book that I appreciated less. The use of the bee’s long forgotten genetic origin, instead of their Latin name, vaguely annoyed me toward the end. And the obligatory love-story was both off-screen and yet too present. I realize this is what I expect from sci-fi books – the outline is all that’s needed since the relationship is not the main focus of the story. In some ways I respect this, but I think the better answer is just not to include it at all. The worst thing about this book though is its ending. The last third of it felt like an all-nighter – indeed, the cast pulled quite a few to fill it. The characters died for stupid reasons, their plans failed for stupid reasons, and the whole nation was saved by some stupid reason or other. The delicate balance of terror and hope that managed to exist in the first part of the book crumbled as the bees toppled one obstacle after another like a never ending wave of over-powered heroes gone bad. With the falling away of suspense went the need for hope – the magical trance in which I had been held could not sustain itself alone for very long. I lost belief in the world, and with belief went enjoyment.

My favorite of all the silly things in the book was that the whole attack plan was manned by dozens and dozens of faceless laborers and about five specialists. As the months dragged on and the crisis grew, those five people struggled on in forced hermitage (about three hours away from D.C.) with less and less sleep. Two people died for no other reason than the lack of personnel. For this alone the bees probably should have won.

 

This was my first TBR book of 2016. I’m pledging for twelve this year, and saying that eight of those have to be non-fiction. Like all the future books I’ll read, this book was a gift from my grandfather. Curious to see what I’ll read next? So am I.