peteg's blog - noise - books - 2023 05 26 BurdickWheeler FailSafe

Eugene Burdick, Harvey Wheeler: Fail-Safe (1962)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Even recently everyone used to like scaring themselves with great tales of nuclear incidents but the uncertainty and unknown-unknowns these days, alongside the risk/threat of actual use, have taken most of the fun out of it. (Fred Kaplan did a PhD on the command-and-control aspects in the early 1980s, which he updated last decade. Similarly the issue has preyed on Ellsberg's mind for a long time now.) This book is the classic work of fiction that got made into a movie that was overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove. I'll now have to watch it.

Burdick benefited from collaboration and/or learnt a lot about storytelling after 1956. The prose is punchy and brisk, relentlessly leading us to an impossible conclusion. Things proceed mostly sketches of the action interspersed with capsule biographies (the wise General and President, the unhinged RAND theoretician, the hard politician, technologist, the cabinet secretaries, and so on). They were keen to observe that man's technology had already outrun his ability to control it (at scale; similar to the vibes about A.I. today, and yes, all decision takers are men here). Apparently it may all come down to the wisdom of the President of the United States! So we know we're screwed, and indeed these guys were so pessimistic about stepping back from the nuclear brink that they would probably have been surprised that we made it this far if they'd made it this far.

Goodreads. Yep, a bit too much exposition. Orville Prescott at the time: not convincing, not great writing but indeed thrilling.