Book Review: Level 7, Mordecai Roshwald (1959)

(Uncredited cover for the 1959 edition)

4.75/5 (Very Good)

I recently received a copy of Modecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959) from 2thD at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature (his enthusiastic review of the novel here).  Roshwald’s novel should be considered along with Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959, published 1960) as one the best nuclear disaster sci-fi novels of the late 50s (and all time).  Unlike Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) or Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959) the allegiance (Soviet or American) of the protagonists of Level 7 remains ambiguous.

Our protagonists are not explicitly Communist or anti-Communist.  All references to government and politics are purposefully general in order to create a more universal message about the dehumanization of nuclear war.  Some reviewers suggest that by removing the entire historical background of Cold War tensions and not portraying a side as ideologically superior (although, potentially misguided) the message becomes ineffective or even naively simplistic.  I disagree completely.  Roshwald is not interested in the ideology that might result in a Cold War environment, rather he seeks to explore the psychological ramifications of the nuclear war on its participants.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Level 7‘s unnamed narrator, who goes by the number X-127, leaves a diary of his life on level seven of a massive underground facility four thousand feet underground.  The facility’s purpose is to house important military personnel and equipment.  Its inhabitants are hermetically sealed inside.  X-127 himself is the archetype of a common man in an uncommon situation — in this case, to stand guard at the Pushbuttons, a machine devised to launch nuclear missiles at the enemy.

Occasionally interjecting his monotonous task is the voice of the loudspeaker that provides instructions, runs educational programs, and plays a twelve day loop of music on request.  Level 7 is of paramount importance for complete war: “Down here on Level 7 we’re safe from surprises like that.  Even if the enemy destroys our country in a surprise attack, we — you and I — can retaliate and destroy his country” (25).  When X-127 asks why particular people were chosen, the loudspeaker responds “You must have proved to be a man of stale disposition, technically skillful  ambitious, intelligent and very healthy.  Also, you must have git a very high score in claustrophobia tests” (22).

As one might imagine, Level 7 plunges its occupants into periods of extreme depression.  One of the most powerful scenes recounts the discovery of the length of the tape of music.  The profound crisis X-127 experiences when confronted with the possibility of an endlessly dull existence underground — exacerbated by the facility’s ability to provide for its residence for 500 years — is ameliorated by the variety of music.  However, after twelve days the residents discover that the tape repeats itself.  Yet another reminder of the repetitive passage of time.

One of the more surreal moments happens when the loudspeaker informs the residents that they should consider getting married.  The ceremonies will be held in a washroom and the voice on the other side will declare them officially married.  Of course, such a marriage will be like none on the surface due to the restricted living arrangements.  The type of person able to live underground isn’t exactly the most sociable.  X-127 hadn’t even considered the potential of marriage… Is he even capable of loving someone?

For Roshwald, the character of x-127 exemplifies the dehumanizing aspects of nuclear war.  He has been trained to follow orders, orders as simple as pressing a button that will result in the annihilation of millions.  He, and most others underground, rarely question their role.  X-127 describes his connection to the surface, “I might miss the sunshine and spend hours brooding about it, but I never lost sleep over a person up there” (47).  He was selected due to his lack of empathy with the people of the surface, he will be able to push the button…  The vast gulf between them and the surface only reinforces this disconnect.

Over the course of the novel the purpose of the other six levels is described in an educational program by the loudspeaker.  Level 6 is for other military personnel.  The other five levels are for various important civilians and, the closer one gets to the surface, the less provisions are provided.

Eventually, the orders come to push the button…

Final Thoughts

Level 7 is a terrifying psychological novel.  Roshwald wants the reader to grapple with our attachment to X-127 despite the character’s complete inability to question his role in the annihilation of billions.  The predictable continuation of endless bickering between the sides even after the nuclear weapons fall — facilitated by radio contact with the enemy’s own fallout shelters — concurrent with the slow die-off of all those in the upper levels perfectly encapsulates the futility of war.

The simplicity of Roshwald’s prose pairs nicely with X-127’s common man character.  Despite the descriptive nature of X-127’s diary, a strange surrealism permeates the pages.  The situations often verge on comical.  For example, a philosopher characters spouts endless rhetorical about the perfect state of existence underground.  In another instance, Level 7’s inhabitants are completely shocked at the order to look for future marriage partners (if war breaks out they will be responsible for the perpetuation of the human race) due to the fact that they were selected because of their inability to form connections with other humans!  In perhaps the most fascinating moment in the narrative, x-127 engages in a series of discussions with a school teacher about the stories they should tell their offspring: the moral of one, “Do not think of the world above you.  Be happy here.  If you are curious to know what happens above Level 7, think of poor Ch-777 who paid for his curiosity with his life” (60).

I recommend Level 7 for all fans of classic science fiction, especially works on Cold War themes.  A devastating satire, a terrifying vision, find a copy…

(Uncredited cover for the 1961 edition)

Screen shot 2012-12-24 at 5.30.47 PM(Hoot von Zitzewitz’s cover for the 1965 edition)

(Sanden’s cover for the 1960 edition)

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36 thoughts on “Book Review: Level 7, Mordecai Roshwald (1959)

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Whenever you write about a book, it makes me want to read it immediately. But, hey, who gets jacket blurbs from Bertrand Russell! Amazing. Very, very cool.

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      My copy — the 1965 edition — has a Linus Pauling quote as well as the Russell quote: “In some ways this story gives the most realistic picture of nuclear war that I have read in any work of fiction. There is a possibility that the astounding series of events depicted by the author will in fact occur a few years from now.”

  2. It’s odd to find comfort in a such dark novel, perhaps it’s because I like bomb shelter and nuclear war themes, but the common man approach by Roshwald lingers in my mind. It also contains specific progressive details of his created universe contrasting the monotony of life on Level 7. Sad AND exciting?

    • Have you read One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter In American Culture? I highly recommend it — despite the authors very condemnatory attitude towards some of the sci-fi from the era (he hates Heinlein) a delightful scholarly (be warned) analysis of a fascinating topic.

  3. That sounds fantastic. Reading it makes me think of the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin in its protagonist who is known by a number and in the manner in which the reader is led to care about him despite his dedication to what we see as a terrifying government. It is the psychological implications that make these kind of stories engaging. I’ll be looking around for a copy of this one.

  4. I had not heard of this book, your review makes me want to find it. I would think that since there is no reference to politics it would be more well known. I did look up the author, at 91 years old he is apparently still teaching at the U of Minnesota.

      • “Mordecai Roshwald is professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Minnesota” — makes sense why U Minnesota press picked up his book recently…. His scholarly works are rather nebulous The Transient and the Absolute: An Interpretation of the Human Condition and of Human Endeavor (1999) and Liberty: Its Meaning and Scope (2000) — hmmm, so what field is that? haha…. philosophy? Politics?

  5. There’s a new translation of We about at the moment which has been very well received I believe.

    That aside, this sounds fantastic and I’d never even heard of it. Definitely going onto the TBR pile. Thanks.

    • Thanks! Enjoy! What is your favorite late 50s atomic themed novel? If you haven’t read any I recommend starting with A Canticle for Leibowitz (copyright 1959 published 1960), Alas, Babylon and On The Beach….

      • I actually don’t remember ever reading atomic themed novel. I’m more of a other planets, space travel, futuristic Earth type of SF reader. But the plot of this one sounds pretty great. I actually went to see if I can order it, but damn it’s 15 euros. I usually buy two, sometimes even three books for that price!

  6. A very fine review of a novel I lend with the DEMAND that I get it back a.s.a.p. I lent it to my non-sf-reading brother and not only did he fly through it, so did his classics-reading wife, and both raved about it. The stripped-down, methodical reporting style has a cumulative effect; the last 20 or so pages are just devastating in their simply-written bleakness. So glad to have found your blog where you review these terrific older books with perceptive eyes and mind. Enjoy your writing very much, and look forward to seeking out some of the gems you`ve uncovered.

    • Thanks for the kind words. But yes, I do try to showcase works which deserve wider audiences…. If you haven’t read any of D. G. Compton, Brian N. Malzberg, or Katherine MacLean (Missing Man, 1975) I highly recommend them..

  7. I`m actually on a bit of a Malzberg streak lately. If you haven`t read his essays in ENGINES OF THE NIGHT [and a more recent expansion], do so. But do yourself a favor, avoid THE SODOM AND GOMORRAH BUSINESS like it was ghost-written by Paris Hilton. Shockingly awful.

    • I haven’t read any of his essays. I’ll get to it eventually. What’s your favorite of his novels?

      I want to get my hands on Galaxies, The Destruction of the Temple, and Chorale.

    • Perhaps that was the point? The Paris Hilton inflection…. hmm… weird. Haven’t read that one yet. I’ve only read Guernica Night, The Falling Astronauts, Beyond Apollo, Revelations, In The Enclosure, and Conversations.

  8. I just threw Paris Hilton in cuz I was tired :P… No, I think Barry was banging away under a deadline on that one–I do get and enjoy what he was doing back then, but this one wasn`t even `interesting,` it was just bad. GALAXIES is his greatest work, IMHO. He has a striking, dark sf story wrapped inside his post-modern self-conscious `writer`s novel` and he just hits every base. It seems like GALAXIES was the book he was heading for with some of the others. HEROVIT`S WORLD is almost a thematic companion piece to it, like he had the juice for one more go when he finished one and just kept going–very self-aware and chatty. BEYOND APOLLO is the other must-read of his. ENGINES OF THE NIGHT is really worthwhile reading for his straightforward opinions on publishing. His essay/elegy for Cornel Woolrich is one of the most heartbreaking essays on a writer`s life I`ve ever read.

  9. btw, if you like Malzberg you have got to get your hands on AND CHAOS DIED by Joanna Russ, which is very much in his grim-70s vein–I consider it one of the most depressing sf books I`ve ever read, in a good way. To get back on topic,EARTH ABIDES is my favorite end-of-world novel, followed by the short story [yes I`m cheating] `Tight Little Stitches on a Dead Man`s Back` [or Dead Man`s Neck, I forget] by Joe R. Lansdale; ALAS BABYLON and MALEVIL, but I read that ages ago and reserve the right to revise. I was enjoying CANTICLE FROM LEIBOVITZ but ended up in the hospital, so I have to start that over to have a clean opinion.

    • I’ve read And Chaos Died and have a review up….

      I read Alas Babylon and Earth Abides a while back but might give them another shot since I’ve long forgotten them…

      I do love Canticle…

  10. I`m sorry, made an error in that last post. I`ve never even read AND CHAOS DIED. The Joanna Russ novel I meant was WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… It takes an old stand-by–a spaceship crash on an alien world, and what happens to the survivors–and takes it on a New Wave spin. Holy cow, what a bummer!

    • I have We Who Are About To… on my shelf waiting to be read. But yeah, unfortunately, I already know what happens in the story… Alas, read too many reviews of it online. And Chaos Died is much more New Wave experimentation — it is also disturbing etc. But, uses, let us say, a very over the top style to convey its point — from the first page I glanced at in We Who are About To… she definitely toned down her extravagant prose.

  11. Thank you so much for the review of this book! I read it years ago as a child (it was one I found at my grandparent’s house) and have searched for it since then but could not remember the name. I’d like to go back and re-read it now that I have a little more life experience. It should be interesting to see what sticks out now vs when I was 10 or 11. 🙂

    • I loved it. Strangely surreal… The characters don’t seem concerned with their role…. But then again they have been selected from the masses for such a mission so they must be of an unusual character makeup anyway. Fantastic!

  12. I know I’m many months behind on this but just finished Level 7 this morning after picking it up yesterday. Even after the point when the buttons were pushed that launched the weapons I was still thinking ahead how the wizard behind the curtain would reveal himself and the joke he was playing on the participants. Wrong again. (I think I’ve read too many Philip K. Dick short stories)

    While in the bookstore yesterday I passed on buying a copy of Lester Del Rey’s ‘Nerves’ but now am reconsidering.

  13. Pingback: Level 7, by Mordecai Roshwald | gaping blackbird

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