Book Report: Fail-Safe

Vincent   September 29, 2010   Comments Off on Book Report: Fail-Safe


Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler

Book Report by Vincent

I’m a strange man. The reasons are many, but the primary one for the purposes of this book report is that I’m very interested in nuclear war. Sometimes when I’m not thinking about boobs or what I’d do with them in my presense, I think, “What would happen if the bombs dropped?” Now that the threat of such a thing happening nowdays is not as serious, it doesn’t cross the minds of most people. Not me. I love reading books about the nuclear apocolypse, how it happens, what happens during it, and what do the survivors have to do deal with their nightmarish existance. That’s why Fail-Safe has been on my must read list for years. It’s a classic book that millions have read about what would happen if a nuclear war was started accidentally. It’s a cautionary tale that was terrifying for those living during the Cold War, but does it hold up today?

The short answer is not exactly. First the back story. So in the U.S. there’s a mysterious radar blip that shows up and the military dudes can’t figure out what it is. They follow protocol and keep raising the threat level until they figure it out. That means the country begins ramping up it’s readiness to strike if it turns out they are being attacked. This includes having bombers get to a fail-safe point, which is sort of a line where they can be recalled or they go and drop their explosive loads (hehe… sorry, I’m five). When it turns out the blip was really nothing, the orders are sent out to stand down and everything is supposed to be recalled. Supposed to be is the key factor here, because there’s a computer error that tells a bomber wing to continue it’s attack on… MOSCOW!

Now, you can’t go bombing Moscow with a nuclear weapon and expect to the U.S.S.R. not to care. If those bombers get through, it will most likely lead to all out nuclear death from above. The characters, from generals to the President, must do whatever they can to prevent that from happening. The book has a stunning conclusion that you won’t see coming… unless you’ve seen the movie or have read about it before like I had.

As an interesting side note, the U.S. president in Fail-Safe is clearly President Kennedy, but he’s never actually named despite the fact that Premier Nikita Kruschev is called out by name. This is probably due to the fact that the ending that would paint the President in a very controversial light.

The biggest pain point is the pages and pages of character back story.  It does the trick of getting you to care about that character, but hot damn is it slow. I found myself committing the ultimate book reader sin: I skipped paragraphs in order to move the story faster myself. Please don’t beat me. I couldn’t stop myself.

There’s also a lot of debates about policy and what or what could happen in a nuclear war. I can see when reading this during the height of the Cold War would have been compelling, but since most of the possible points never came to fruition it’s hard to read about outdated speculation.

Another, but much lesser problem that I had with Fail-Safe was that I already knew the ending. I used to read any book I could about World War III when I was a kid, so naturally they talked about Fail Safe and the ending. For the average reader, this ending should come as a great surprise. And while it is terrible, it’s worth reading the book for… or seeing the movie.