Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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...

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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 left uncovered. The president and the premier, as they await the destruction of Moscow, lament that they have become prisoners of technology. Khrushchev suggests that, instead of allowing computers to control people’s lives, they should instead adopt the philosophy “The computer proposes; man disposes.”

A final theme in the novel is sacrifice. The Skyscraper fighter pilots sacrifice themselves trying to stop the Vindicators. Vindicator Six sacrifices itself so the remaining bombers can make it to Moscow. Grady detonates his bombs within his plane, sacrificing himself and his crew to ensure a successful mission. The president sacrifices New York City and his wife, and Black sacrifices his family, to prevent all-out thermonuclear war. Black sacrifices himself to help alleviate some of the blame from his crew. Black’s middle name, Abraham, echoes the sacrifice of the biblical Abraham in the Old Testament—except that God does not step in at the last minute to prevent his sacrifice.

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