Fail-Safe Critical Evaluation
by Eugene Burdick

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fail-Safe reads as a journalistic piece. However, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler state in their preface that the work is not an exposé. Their main purpose in writing it, they say, was to confront head-on the lack of public awareness of military activity in nuclear defense and the all-too-real possibility of accidental nuclear war, even when some of the information is declassified and discussed in technical journals.

The authors masterfully weave together accounts of actions in several places. They do this through several devices, including reminders of time, parallel big boards, and the red phone. The novel uses an omniscient point of view to allow readers to understand the motivations behind characters’ actions. Flashbacks recall the familial and military backgrounds of the primary characters. From these, readers learn that the characters are all very intelligent, capable men. This helps drive home the theme that, even with the best intentions of the most intelligent people, no human oversight is fail-safe.

A related theme is that no complex technical system is foolproof. The fail-safe system ironically fails to be fail-safe. As Knapp argues at one point in the novel, the more complex a system is, the more prone to accidents and breakdowns it becomes. Such systems can also operate too fast for human oversight to correct.

The novel portrays humans as becoming prisoners of technology, as well as losing their humanness. Many of the military characters are described with computerlike terms: “methodical,” “automatic,” “under control,” and “preprogrammed.” In the human-computer military systems, people are biological machines, trained to be automatic cogs. Members of Vindicator crews rotate so they will not form close bonds with one another. Instead, they become identical biological cogs bonding with the Vindicators. In the planes, they are largely encased by machinery—only their eyes are...

(The entire section is 454 words.)