Fail-Safe (1962) by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler

fail-safe-book♦♦♦♦

Quintessential Cold War novel about the prospect of accidental nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When a UFO is detected heading toward America, several bomber groups routinely plot a course for their “fail-safe” points, positions in the sky from which, if given a “go” signal, they can attack Russia. The UFO is identified as a friendly and all the groups are recalled — except one, which, due to a mechanical malfunction, receives its go signal and heads towards its target: Moscow. The action shifts between Strategic Air Command, the Pentagon, the White House, and the bombers. Authors Burdick and Wheeler eschew satire and ridicule, presenting instead a satisfying and realistic portrayal of intelligent, driven, and powerful men who in many ways are at the mercy of the machines they funded, created, and allowed themselves to become dependent on. With a great deal of interesting character-building through backstory that only underlines the cold and impersonal nature of the villain: the system itself and the computers and machines that make it possible. Gripping and suspenseful, this cautionary tale ends unflinchingly.

The authors were sued for plagiarism by British author Peter George based on the many significant parallels of this story to that of his own 1958 book Two Hours to Doom (published in the U.S. as Red Alert). The case was settled out of court. Interestingly, George’s book served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was released the same year as Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Fail-Safe, both movies — the one satirical, the other realistic — having been produced by Columbia Pictures. George co-wrote Dr. Strangelove and had a hand (uncredited) in writing Fail-Safe.

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