Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Life, or: How I Learned to Live With Absurdity, and the Consequences of Such

Just finished reading Fail-Safe, a rather interesting book by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It’s a Cold War-era book in which an accidental nuclear strike on Moscow results in the American President ordering nuclear bombs be dropped on New York City. A move based on the film was produced at about the same time as Dr. Strangelove, so I’ve had a hard time not imagining President Merkin Muffley in the lead role in this book. Peter Sellers did such a wonderful job, portraying the calm and level-headedness of the president in Strangelove. The more I think about it, his role as Muffley is actually more impressive than his role as Strangelove, though it’s Strangelove that everyone remembers.

It’s odd to think about Fail-Safe, though. Apparently, it was written by writers who were also political consultants (in many ways, resembling the Groteschele character in Fail-Safe). That being said, the book really isn’t filled with flights of literary fancy; the matador dream of Col. Black is probably the closes the authors get. They still write a tight, gripping tale, though, where the only clunkiness comes when the story is interrupted for exposition on the characters’ backgrounds. Again, given the authors’ background in consultancy, that approach is understandable; it’s also an approach taken by many authors of various veins, some are just able to make the exposition be less obtrusive than others. (The ultimate here is probably Tolkein, but that again may be cheating since he used an entire book, The Silmarillion, as exposition for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. A better alternative may be C.S. Lewis and others of his ilk, who look at exposition as more of a how-do-you-do handshake, rather than an excuse to pound out page after page of expository prose.)

There are some parallels between the underlying distrust-of-machines philosophy in this book as in Metropolis. The authors of Fail-Safe don’t necessarily hate machines (or, in this case, electronics) but they certainly emphasize that an overreliance on technology that is believed to be infallible and foolproof is foolhardy. Both books emphasize that the pace of technological advance may be outstripping humanity’s moral and ethical ability to handle how technology is used, and that some technology is pursued and adopted into our lives and industries merely for the sake of the technology itself, with the perceived benefits to humanity often outweighing the effects such advance can have on our moral and ethical beings.

Then comes the debate: Are morals and ethics absolutes, or are they debatable? Is the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” or is it “Thou Shalt Not Kill Without Cause?” I know where I stand on this one.

I do like how Burdick and Wheeler put it (from page 72):

“The more speculative of the missilemen, the eggheads among them, had also discovered an unofficial poet laureate: Albert Camus. Camus, who had understood fully the futility and the antic and the senselessness of much of modern life, had also, in a perverse way, found the principle and the will which allowed him to live through the awful stresses of the French underground during World War II. Like Camus, the missilemen had learned to live seriously in a world which was absurd.”

Sometimes that ability to live in an absurd world is of great benefit to those who possess it. In other instances, however, the ability dulls the natural human instincts and the ability to see reason. Burdick and Wheeler pick up on this ability to live normally in absurd situations throughout the novel, concentrating on how military training persuaded those who got the “go” code for the attack on Moscow to live normally, even though they received a direct voice communication from the president to abort their mission. They live normally when they become irradiated by the last defensive attempts of the Soviets to knock their planes out of the air, claiming to be the walking dead. They carry out their mission amidst absurdity, bringing to pass the ultimate attempt to live normally in an absurd world of politics, when both the president and the Soviet premier agree that destroying New York is the only way to react to the destruction of Moscow, though, both admit, neither know how their countrymen will react.

I think all of us live lives that accept a certain amount of absurdity. I think we do ourselves good when we examine how we live, to ensure that the way we live isn’t allowing greater and greater absurdity to be acceptable.

Note: The photo at the top of this post shows Larry Hagman as Buck, the president's translator, and Henry Fonda as the president, from the 1964 film based on the book.

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