Level 7
Mordecai Roshwald, 1959

The superpowers have built deep shelters in case of nuclear war. The top level is for everyone. Level 2 is for peaceniks and other anti-government activists: "The idea behind this," we are told, "is to appease all the doubtful and subversive elements by giving them a more secure and privileged shelter level." Levels 3, 4, and 5 are for elite civilians. Level 6 is for defensive military personnel. And Level 7, 4400 feet below the surface, is an entirely self-sufficient shelter for the four men who will push the button and the 496 support personnel who allow them to perform their function: doctors, atomic engineers to monitor the underground reactor that supplies their power, psychologists to give them electroshock treatments when they go insane, and so forth. There are 250 men and 250 women, because should war occur, Level 7 is the last hope for humanity to continue; the upper levels might fail. And really, it makes no difference whether war occurs or not, because they're permanently sealed in anyway. They didn't know that would be the case when they entered the shelter, but most of them take the news pretty well. After all, they've been carefully chosen for Level 7. "One of the essential conditions of selection for work down here," says the narrator, "irrespective of what form the work would take, was that the candidate should have no strong personal attachment to anybody remaining on earth."

The narrator is Officer X-127; all inhabitants of Level 7 have similar designations rather than names, in order that they identify with their roles in their tiny underground world rather than with anything from their lives above. Level 7 is a short epistolary novel presenting his diary.

When I was reading up on nuclear war fiction, most of the articles I encountered described most of it as hackwork, and my own reading backs that up. The most frequently cited exception was Level 7. Naturally, this also turned out to be the one that wasn't available at any public library in the Bay Area. It looked like San Francisco Central had it, but no, it turns out that the SFPL catalog lists every book the SFPL is aware of, whether or not it has a copy of said book in the system. I had almost given up when I realized — wait, I can actually, y'know, buy a copy. It turned out that a used copy plus shipping cost less than the BART fare to San Francisco. And I am pleased to report that the articles were right; this is a good book.

Level 7 naturally calls to mind Dr. Strangelove, another Cold War satire. In fact, Level 7 sort of picks up where Dr. Strangelove leaves off — hey, yeah, what about those mine shafts? But I wouldn't want to make too much of this. Dr. Strangelove, while bearing a serious message, is also pretty goofy. Its modus operandi is to make everyone involved in the Cold War look ridiculous. Level 7 is different: not the hot-blooded satire that Terry Southern wrote for Stanley Kubrick, but cold and dry as the South Pole. In a lot of ways it's more reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The central gimmick of that book is an autistic narrator who is incapable of understanding the emotions of those around him. X-127 and his fellows may not be autistic, but they are so emotionally stunted — X-127 calmly avers that he is ideally suited for Level 7 because he is "most likely incapable of love" — that the effect is much the same. Some examples:

  • One character, X-117, flips out because he doesn't want to push the buttons that will kill three billion people. His fellow Push-Button Officer, X-107, cautions him against getting "sentimental about the crust of the earth, which it may be our duty to lay waste." Psychologist P-867 suggests that he marry one of the 250 female survivors down in the bunker as "a harmless outlet for his sociable impulses."

  • After the war, X-127 is asked how he can live with himself after killing every living thing on the surface of the earth. X-127 replies that "I feel better now than I did before. Not that I enjoyed pushing those buttons particularly, but doing so made me feel rather important."

  • Having been asked, "Was pushing the buttons a very difficult thing to do?", X-127 writes that "I laughed and told her that it was the simplest job imaginable. A child could have done it. An imbecile. A trained monkey!" After all, here is what his console looks like:

The joke, of course, is that only an imbecile, the sort of person who can hear a question like "Was pushing the buttons a very difficult thing to do?" and not even consider the possibility that the speaker might have meant "ethically difficult" or "emotionally difficult" rather than "physically difficult," could do X-127's job. The very phrase "Push-Button Officer" is darkly funny, as is the action sequence in which we see said officers performing their lone task. "The loudspeaker spoke again. 'Push Button A1!' I pressed the button." I mentioned Dr. Strangelove earlier, but the nuclear war in Level 7 more closely resembles the murder of the hibernating astronauts in 2001. Click! "Planetary life functions terminated."

"I still do not believe I could be a hangman," X-127 says. "But to push a button, to operate a 'typewriter' — that is a very different thing. It is smooth, clean, mechanical. That is where X-117 went wrong. For him it was the same thing. He could even talk about strangling P and me with his bare hands! Maybe this inability to distinguish between killing with the bare hands and pushing a button was the source of his mental trouble."

Of course, the Cold War is over now, but the underlying moral diseases highlighted by Level 7 are still with us. We shake our heads at X-127, who doesn't understand that the true "mental trouble" is drawing a false distinction between mass murder and pushing a button to launch a nuclear war... and yet we elect leaders who flip out over the prospect of a brain-dead woman being taken off life support at the same time that they push the buttons on their congressional voting devices to authorize and fund a war that's killing tens of thousands, or push the buttons on their telephones to deliver the orders to send in the troops and drop the bombs that are taking so many lives and causing so much suffering. In fact, things have arguably gotten worse on this score since Level 7 was written. In the aftermath of World War II, a war in which only 15% of American soldiers could bring themselves to fire their weapons, the idea of carefully selecting amoral order-followers who kill without regret was a nightmarish sci-fi concept. But by the time of the Vietnam War the military had developed training techniques that got that figure up to 95% — and that was with a draft! Now the military is a self-selected group of people who have decided ahead of time that they can live with what they'll be ordered to do out on a battlefield, people who can calmly tell reporters "I enjoy killing Iraqis." People who by the time they enter the military have logged thousands of hours huddled around their TV sets practicing murdering people... by pushing buttons.

Return to the Calendar page!