Level 7, by Mordecai Roshwald

2017 marked the passing of a former officer of the Soviet Union Air Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Y. Petrov. On September 26, 1983, the nuclear early-warning system reported the launch of a missile attack from the United States; years later, this alarm was adjudged to be result of high clouds and the coincidental alignment of satellites over North Dakota.

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Petrov was the commanding officer at the time of the alert – signaling a launch of five missiles. He concluded that a genuine American attack what have involved far more missiles, and that the alert passed through its 30 verification checks too rapidly. A nuclear holocaust was averted largely because of his actions as a individual with experience and judgement. Due to his exposure of embarrassing flaws of this early warning system, Petrov never received the kind of recognition he would have deserved, during his life or after his passing.

Level 7 (1959) is a short tale of nuclear war and its consequences by Mordecai Roshwald, a native of Poland (and resident of Israel in its earliest years) who was living in the United States at the time of publication. Although English was not Roshwald’s native language, with the help of his editor* he produced an efficient and compelling book that deserves to be considered a classic of the decade. I read it earlier this year, but only after accidentally reading about Petrov did the full prescience of Level 7 occur to me.

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Signet edition. isfdb.org

Relatively obscure for decades, Level 7 has received renewed interest in recent years: see this review, this review and this review for additional discussion. It’s easy to argue that the book is hardly a “lost classic” anymore, but its approach to the potential of nuclear war has never lost its relevance since it was first written.

Level 7 is the fictional diary of Agent X-127, a single man whose life apart from the traditional trappings of marriage and social circles has contributed to his recruitment by the government as a PB officer. He is led to believe that he was selected for his ambition and intelligence, as well as his resilience to the effects of claustrophobia. PB stands for Push-Button, or the operation of a simple 3-by-4 arrangement of labeled buttons.

As a matter of fact, it is not all that important to know what the buttons do, because the orders would be quite explicit: ‘Push Button A1,’ or ‘Push Button B3,’ or ‘Push Button C2.’ It is not certain whether Buttons 4 would actually be used. Some people have said they might prove dangerous even to the country using them.

To prepare for war, X-127 and the other PB officers, plus an assortment of psychologists and other personnel, are sent deep underground to live in a bunker. At Level 7, this bunker is the highest degree of protection of nuclear fallout, beyond that afforded to military commanders, scientists, heads of state and so on. The wealthy and highly skilled civilians reside in other levels to wait out the conflict.

The PB officers live in a very regimented routine, with a tight schedule and continuous monitoring. Instructions are given from electric loudspeakers, and X-127 is never assured of privacy beyond the written pages of his diary. Despite his high test scores, X-127 feels the oppression of his environment as the weeks pass, albeit with a concerted attempt at keeping an even keel:

I had noticed the red buttons around before, of course, with their instructions: “In case of emergency press and speak.” But I had never used one so far. The only times I have felt like doing so were when I wanted to shout, “Let me out of here.”

Eventually the war does arrive in a flurry of alarms and instructions. X-127 and his fellow PB Officers mash the buttons as told, assuring an outcome of mutual destruction with whomever his government was fighting. We never know which side X-127 is actually on, because it doesn’t matter. The suspense of Level 7 is built upon his attempts to wait out the effects of nuclear fallout, survive the isolation and identify his place in the world following the war.

I do not differ from the other reviewers about the quality and importance of Level 7. It’s a memorable little piece of speculative fiction and recommended reading for just about anyone. X-127 learned who he really was, too late for his world. Happily, this wasn’t the case for Lt. Col. Petrov in 1983. 8/10.

* The title page of my paperback edition thanks a Jonathan Price for “turning my English into English.” I  enjoy this kind of self-deprecating humor that I sometimes see from these part-time genre authors.

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About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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5 Responses to Level 7, by Mordecai Roshwald

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Thanks for the review — as you know from my own review the slightly surreal elements of the story appealed to me the most… I was rather blown away by the novel. Far better than a lot of 50s SF I had read up to that point…

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I agree with your qualifier that the surreal elements of Level 7 are “slightly” surreal, given our current situation with a post-Cold War version of the Cold War. In the end, the critical decisions surrounding the launch of these missiles will be made by complex, automated systems. I don’t know whether the next person to save the world or destroy it will be another Petrov or someone like X-127. It’s plausible to imagine either case, so I wouldn’t put this novel in J.G. Ballard territory, for example.

      The Fictional Diary format really works for Level 7, which I had believed to be unusual for SF. However, the Fictional Diary was also put to good use in Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings (which I’m currently reading) and, of course, the book that inspired it – Frankenstein. Three very different authors.

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      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Bishop is the master of the diary — check out his novella Death and Designation among the Asadi. It forms part of his novel Transfigurations (1979) — which is solid but the novella’s power is lost with the extension of the story (although, it’s a “different” story, sort of) — reviewed it here if you’re curious.

        https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/08/01/book-review-transfigurations-michael-bishop-1979/

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Now that I think it about it Death and Designation is more a series of fragmented notes and recordings…. it’s been a while!

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        That was probably the view that got me to read Transfigurations, actually. The novella “Death and Designation …” was certainly a masterpiece and I think Bishop was right to leave it be, instead of trying to inflate it into a novel-length piece. The follow-up half of Transfigurations is a more careful build-up of the new characters, and doesn’t have the energy of the novella – but that is how science feels: turning Cheney’s initial sojourns into useable insights would be the harder job, with less immediate payoff. I have to say the more I think about the way Transfigurations was constructed, the more respect I have for it as a novel.

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