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Friday, 2 November 2012


“Divided we live, united we die!” 

Most of us have certain books that provide a special resonance in our lives. Perhaps the book provides a meaning or explanation for our own life or some insight into society or wider human existence. Perhaps it represents a turning point in ones intellectual or artistic development. Or possibly, it may be a special book that simply provided escape from reality when we needed it most.
For me, in the case of this science fiction novel, it was probably the last two reasons as to why I fell in love, as a 16 year old boy with this somewhat bleak story of Nuclear Armageddon. 

Yes, once again we return to the subject of a dystopian future following the destruction of the planet……...

Level 7 is a book by the American writer Mordecai Roshwald written in 1959. The story takes the form of  the diary by Officer X-127, who is assigned responsibility to control the  "Push Buttons," a machine intended to set in motion the atomic destruction of the enemy - whoever they may be, in the country’s deepest emergency shelter four thousand feet underground. 

Level 7 has been built to withstand the most devastating nuclear offensive and to be completely self-sufficient to be able to function for up to five hundred years. Officer X-127, like the rest of the military personnel inhabitants of the shelter, has been selected according to a psychological profile that assures their willingness to obey their orders and essentially destroy all life on the planet. 

X-127 duly receives his orders to push the nuclear bomb buttons to begin the third world war , for which the duration of is merely a staggering total of just 2 hours and 58 minutes. As of that moment, the civilian population moves from the surface of the planet to a collection of underground shelter complexes on the the first 5 levels, while the military personnel already inhabit Levels 6 and 7. It later emerges that the orders given to blow the other side to pieces have been completely automated and that World War III has lasted less than three hours as a series of computer responses to an initial innocent misunderstanding between the two enemies. 

As the story progresses we learn that , the inhabitants are becoming affected by the war. Some of the military personal begin to question their blind obedience to their leaders - the most obvious case being the case of X-117 ( a friend of X-127) who commits suicide after he becomes overcome with guilt. Even here, the complete certainly of X-127 isn't shaken. "He certainly wasn't the right kind of man for Level 7" he says to himself. A couple from Level 3 go out to report on conditions, and are dead within 5 days, finding nothing but ash and darkness. In a short space of time, other civilians begin to be affected as the inhabitants of the surviving top shelters systematically begin to meet their deaths, as the surface radiation makes its way down past air filters and into ground water sources.

Level 7 has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the decades since it was written and should be quite rightly considered a masterpiece alongside such pieces of work as Huxley's 'Brave new World'  as an example of anti-Utopian literature. It is easily the most powerful and remorseless attack on the whole nuclear madness that any work of fiction has ever produced. Take for example the passage where X-127 states that the neutral countries in the war have asked for information on the make-up of the weapons so that they can effectively try to take care of their populations as best they can. Both X-127's country and the enemy refuse, on the grounds that it may mean giving some of their own secrets away.

The book real genius of the book is that it is  written in such a way to prevent the reader from identifying which side is which. References to society are structured as to be just as relevant to notions of Western democracy as to the construct of soviet Union society. Nor does the novel hint at any geographical references or individual names. It is left to us, the reader. Leaving the identification of nationality as ambiguous at best only emphasises to the book's themes of dehumanisation and blind obedience to authority and the illogicality of nuclear warfare. 

Yes at times it is grim and harrowing. It is a masterpiece warning against the stupidity of mutual destruction and a book that has as much impact on me now as it did to that 16 year old boy many moons ago.

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