Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review: Commander-1

Book Review: 'Commander-1' by Peter George

2 / 5 Stars

Peter George (1924 – 1966) was a British author who served in the RAF during WW2. In 1958 he published a novel about a paranoid American Air Force commander who launches a nuclear attack on Russia, titled Two Hours to Doom; in the US, it was retitled Red Alert.

In 1962, the American authors Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler published another nuclear disaster novel, titled Fail Safe, that also dealt with an command and control error that leads to a nuclear war. George sued them for plagiarism, and the case was settled out of court.

For his part, George co-wrote the screenplay for the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was based on Red Alert.

In 1965 George published another novel, 'Commander-1'. This Dell paperback was released in June, 1966. (That same year, Peter George shot himself at the age of 42.)

As ‘Commander-1’ opens, it is Christmas Eve, December 24, 1965. In the Pentagon War Room, Brigadier General Barry Kingston assumes command of the night shift, expecting a quiet and uneventful period of duty. However, NORAD detects the launchings of missiles overseas, and there is a troubling absence of communication from the main US early-warning facility (referred to as ‘Clear’).

As an apprehensive Kingston exchanges phone calls with NORAD, additional launches of Russian ICBMs are observed. The US goes to DEFCON 2 status. Contact is lost with New York City and Scot's Hill, North Carolina, where the President is spending the holidays. The War Room command has no choice but to go to DEFCON 1, and orders an attack on Russia with the entire US arsenal. World War Three commences.

The novel then shifts locale to an un-named US nuclear submarine stationed underneath the polar ice pack. Its Commander, James Geraghty, has been ordered to conduct an experiment in which civilians are housed in an isolation chamber aboard the sub, simulating the closed quarters associated with space travel. To Geraghty’s increasing disquiet, after December 25, he is unable to raise radio links with his home port, the Navy, or with any US military installation.

Once Geraghty does make contact with his superiors, he learns that there has been a nuclear war, and that most of the world is in ruins. He and his submarine now constitute one of the last military resources of the US.

The remainder of ‘Commander-1’ deals with Geraghty’s decision to find a top-secret US base designed to be the final redoubt in the event of WW3. But even as Geraghty embarks on his new mission, his already precarious mental state begins to change….and not for the better.

‘Commander-1’ is primarily a dark satire of the military mind, related in a detached, matter-of-fact prose style, the primary goal of which is to document the growing egomania of Geraghty, the submarine commander. It fails to offer much in terms of vivid descriptions of post-apocalyptic landscapes and devastation; indeed, most of the action unfolds aboard the submarine, or on remote islands in the Pacific.

I won’t disclose any spoilers, but the ending of ‘Commander-1’ is in keeping with author Peter George’s belief in the futility of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race (topics that apparently contributed to the depression that led him to commit suicide). It’s a grimmer novel that Red Alert, and in a sense, more polemical. 

I doubt it will appeal to readers who are interested in the more traditional post-apocalyptic tale, about the struggle for survival in irradiated wastelands populated by mutants and cannibalistic barbarians. 'Commander-1' is best regarded as a product of the height of the Cold War, which (for anyone under 40) has since become a sort of vaguely recalled aspect of 20th century American history......

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