Just Finished Reading: Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (FP: 1962)
It started with a UFO. Watched on the NORAD radar screens it steadily approached US airspace and then, inexplicably, disappeared. Following procedure, just like hundreds of times before, high speed interceptors raced to investigate whilst nuclear armed bombers lifted off from airfields across the country and moved to their fail-safe points. It was a matter of pure routine. Nothing to get anxious about. Just another day at the office. Then, quite suddenly, it wasn’t. One group of six bombers reached their fail-safe point and then, seemingly without any good reason, went beyond that imaginary point in space and continued on, towards their designated target deep inside the Soviet Union. Alarms rang, circuits were tested and tested again. Finally, after minutes of frantic activity a phone was lifted and an Airforce General, deep in the Cheyenne Mountain complex spoke to the US President (played by Henry Fonda in the 1964 movie adaptation). The unthinkable had apparently happened. A fool proof system with safe guard built upon redundancy, a technological marvel had failed and had, by a million to one accident, launched a strike against the Soviets that would in all likelihood result in a massive retaliatory strike against the US and the end of the world. After attempts to stop the planes fail there is only one option left – to help the Russians shoot down their own planes! But what if their training is enough to surmount even this unexpected hurdle? What happens if the bombers, even one of them, gets through to its intended target – Moscow?
This is, hard to imagine I know, yet another book that has been collecting dust on my shelves for years (although not as far back as its print date of 1965). I don’t know when I would’ve read it if it wasn’t for the books into movies set I’m working through right now. After all this time I wasn’t expecting too much from this Cold War thriller so I was doubly surprised at just how gripping the tale was. Told over a compressed period of 10-12 hours between the first radar contact and the final dramatic moments the narrative built its tension inch by inch and turned the screw a little bit more on each page. As the reality began to sink in and the very real possibility of Nuclear War approached each character acted in his own way (there was in effect only a single peripheral female character in the whole book) and struggled, sometimes to breaking point, in their own way. It was, in all senses of the word, a real page turner. I might have seen the movie years ago but I had clearly forgotten much of it so I had no clear idea of what was coming next. Everything seemed so logical, so reasonable and so screwed up that it felt real. It felt real that the world could indeed end because of a blown circuit in a computer buried beneath millions of tons of rock dispassionately dispatching nuclear death to its enemies without a thought to the consequences. This was real, very real, fear and must have terrified people much more aware of the possibility of nuclear holocaust than we are today. Whilst being more than a little dated this still packs quite a punch even after all these years and technological advances. If you want a thick slice of Cold War nuclear paranoia this is definitely the book for you. But be warned, it might give you a few sleepless nights!