University of Wisconsin Press, 2004 (Reprint, originally published in 1959)
Level 7 is a fascinating science fiction story emerging straight out of the fear and anxiety of the Atomic Age/Cold War era. It details the life and thoughts of push button technician X-127 whose job, deep beneath the surface of the earth, it is to press the button that will unleash nuclear destuction on the enemy. Level 7 is, at it’s heart, a cautionary tale and a scathing indictment on the type of political and emotional states that existed during the Cold War Era. Read on for more impressions…
The first thing that one might note about Level 7 is it’s eerie prescience. When the book was released in 1959 who would have thought that just 3 short years later two countries would be staring across the ocean with their fingers on the button. Looking at that last sentance I just wrote I have to admit: probably more than I think. Level 7 is a novel undeniably rooted in the context of the era during which it was written. Sure some of the elements of the novel seem a little dated, the automated technology used in the titular bunker is something straight out of The Carousel of Progress (though that attraction is some 5 years younger). We live with different fears today, fears that are no less profound or real, but fears that do not translate quite so easily to the threats portrayed in Level 7.
The novel is rooted in the Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD as explained by wikipedia:
…assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate escalation resulting in both combatants’ total and assured destruction. It is now generally assumed that the nuclear fallout or nuclear winter resulting from a large scale nuclear war would bring about worldwide devastation, though this was not a critical assumption to the theory of MAD.
In Level 7 that destuction is assumed and carried out fairly early. What Level 7 explores is the aftermath. It looks at how humanity, ensconsced within bunkers beneath the Earth, deal with the total and utter annihilation of everthing it has ever known. Where most post-apocalyptic novels deal with the ramifications on human society in eras long after the world’s destuction Level 7 deals with the events hours, days, and months immediatly follow.
X-127 is an interesting choice of narrator for these events. With a cold, detached response to the events that occur (being trapped in a bunker for the rest of his life, the death of the world) X-127 is Roshwald’s vision of the type of person who could be trusted to do what he is told. That character, as revealed in the Appendix of the novel, who emerged from Roshwald’s own discussion of “push-button nuclear war” in scientific journals. Roshwalds vision is clear: push-button nuclear war requires an individual utterly and completely cut off from both the highs and lows of human emotion; a person cut off from their own humanity.
The 2004 Library of America version of the novel features a “preface” by Martian Archeoligists who discover X-127’s diary. On the one hand I like this effect, it reminds me in many ways of the closing section of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. However, it does not mesh all that well with the more clinical tone of X-127’s narrative and does not quite fit with the more serious discussion Roshwald intended to incite with his novel. This version of novel also has a lengthy introduction to contextualize the text and ancillary materials (including one of the essays by Roshwald that was the genesis for the novel). Level 7 is an important novel that has permeated our own pop-culture most notable in the vaults of the Fallout series and, at least to my thinking, Season 1 of Lost where Desmond is like an inverted X-127 (pushing a button to avoid a possibly apocalyptic threat). Level 7 won’t thrill you with exciting action, nor will it wow you with deep evocative language but it will move you and inspire you to think. Sure the resulting thoughts might not be happy ones but any thought at all is better than just sitting there and pushing a button. Right?