I read Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1921 – 2015) because the author died earlier this year and I have heard good things about this novel. I do not think Roshwald was a prolific writer, and based on this novel, that is a sad fact. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this, even if it is a bit sobering for a summertime read. The novel was first published in 1959. I read the Signet 5th printing with 143 pages.
This novel was a very quick read. I was surprised by this because I was expecting a much worse novel. I think I somewhat expected a preaching, moralizing tale full of vagueness and woe. Instead, this novel is a super tightly written piece that manages to examine dozens of aspects of atomic warfare within less than 150 pages. That is really the thing that impressed me the most about this book; the skilled argumentation and presentation without endless stuffing. The contemporary equivalent – though I warn you from taking that word too seriously – is probably Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012). To compare these two novels is entirely unfair – and I’m gonna do it anyway!
These novels are hardly the same, but they are similar. Both involve underground living – because of a catastrophic event on the surface. Wool is driven by interpersonal actions, relationships, and emotions. Character-driven and dramatic. Level 7 is, in comparison, clinical and scientific. The story plays out rather predictably, though. In Wool, I did not know what was going to happen next. In Level 7, yeah, there is only one place for this story to go. But it goes there without bulked up chapters and heaps of extraneous detours and words and subplots.
The main character in Level 7 is simply known as X-127. We are actually reading his diary. He is quickly promoted to the rank of Major and deployed into the deep underground military installation. My first impression of X-127 is that he is naive and rather passive. That continues throughout the novel. X-127 arrives at “Level 7,” which is the deepest level of the facility – 4,000 feet below the surface. This level is self-sufficient in that it provides its own clean air, potable water, and food. The entirety of the level is for the purpose of X-127 and his task. So, all of the other personnel on the level are subsidiary to the purpose of X-127 (and his crew). His crew are those “button-pushers” who will release the military’s offensive weaponry of mass destruction.
This is the novel that happens after all the faux-conundrums get asked. You know like the one: “If you got paid a trillion dollars if you just pressed a button – but that button destroys so many people… would you do it?” This is that novel.
No, no fooling on Level 7. This is a serious place. No tricks, no jokes, no April fools. We are all wise down here even on April 1. Or are we? Perhaps we are April fools all round the year. We are deceiving each other. We are doing it all the time. X-107 is deceiving me and I am deceiving him. And the soft-voiced lady on the loudspeaker is deceiving both of us. We all pretend not to feel what we do feel – and know that we feel. We are doing it all the time.
We do not deceive just other people; we deceive ourselves. Each of us is making a perpetual April fool of himself, the biggest one imaginable. Each tells himself lies which he pretends to believe, though he knows they are lies. – April 1 (pg. 34)
Well, Roshwald really made this a tightly-written novel. Throughout the work, he examines and explains the situation and looks at dozens of aspects that would come up as potential issues with such a situation. And there is one element that I want to point out that Roshwald uses early in the novel. He has a philosopher on Level 7. Now, all of the personnel on Level 7 are functional and practical. We are told that space and resources are extremely close and therefore there cannot be waste or extra. Each human is only referred to with letter/number designation. The letter designates their job – which really does define their whole lives – and the number, which differentiates them from others with that same letter. Even so, there is at least one philosopher. Now, I’m an Aristotelian. I know full well that philosophers are “useless.” They do not serve a particular task-oriented result. But deep in Level 7, the philosopher’s job is to convince the people of the level that they are in the best of all possible situations. His first speeches are on the topics of democracy and freedom.
However, in my opinion, Ph-107 isn’t the true philosopher of the level. Instead, I think X-127’s roommate, X-107, is the true philosopher. The discussions that X-127 has with his roommate regarding all of the various aspects of the underground installation are fascinating because Roshwald worked to make them logical or at least reasonable. And that is the real part that convinces the reader that this is a very possible scenario. It isn’t the fears and the dramas, it is rather how easily X-127 is convinced by the very logical argumentation of his roommate. And once convinced, he can commit to his job of being at the ready to press the buttons.
Why did I have such a long and intensive training? Was it really necessary? Or was it really training? What skill had I acquired? Enough to push the buttons! And I had learnt all sorts of technical things seemingly unrelated to this imbecile function. My guess was that the training staff introduced them to make me feel that I had an intricate and important job to do, and to camouflage the simplicity of my basic task. This sort of ‘training’ must have been the crafty invention of my wife’s colleagues – psychologists. They studied monkeys to learn about men, and then turned men into monkeys. – June 12 (pg. 102)
The trajectory of the storyline is obvious from the start. But though it is obvious, it remains horrifying. Or at least it should – if not, you may be a psychopath. It is chilling to the bone to even imagine these sorts of things. But do not pass over this novel because of its obvious storyline. And don’t ignore it because it seems like we have read it/watched it before. There are a few twists, which serve to further dehumanize the characters and their actions.
This is a good novel because it balances on a fine line between totally sanitized and clinical and yet extremely shocking psychologically. Only one element is really “dated” (that of the tape recordings), but everything else in this novel survives the test of time and that in itself is one scary fact. It is eerie and fundamentally disturbing that this novel was written in 1959, but yet is still so relevant/applicable in 2015. This is the success of keeping many of the main story components general, but focusing on a few very specific characters and their insanely specific tasks.
Recommended for philosophers, soldiers, dystopia-readers, students of the Cold War, and those who liked Zamyatin’s We.