(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…
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)
(Sanden’s cover for the 1960 edition)
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