In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Over the past year or so, I have been delving into the works of Leigh Brackett, a science fiction pioneer best known for her swashbuckling tales of planetary adventure. As I researched her career, a book came up that I’d not heard of before—The Long Tomorrow, the tale of a young man coming of age in a United States struggling to survive the aftermath of an atomic war. So I tracked the novel down, ordered a copy online, and am glad I did. The book ranks not only among Brackett’s best work, but also among the best science fiction of that era. It describes a fantastic journey, yet remains utterly believable and deeply rooted in the real world.
The Long Tomorrow was published in 1955, and was a finalist for the Hugo Award. While the novel was well received at the time, it has not been remembered as well as Brackett’s planetary romance stories, at least by most fans. This book was previously discussed on Tor.com by the inimitable Jo Walton in 2017, a review you can read here. The Long Tomorrow is quite unlike most of Brackett’s other science fiction or fantasy work, particularly because of a darker tone and gritty sensibility that’s more akin to her detective novels or scripts.
About the Author
Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was a noted science fiction writer and screenwriter, perhaps best known today for one of her last works, the first draft of the script for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve reviewed Brackett’s work before—the omnibus edition Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars, the novel The Sword of Rhiannon, the novelette “Lorelei of the Red Mist” in the collection Three Times Infinity, the short story “Citadel of Lost Ships” in the collection Swords Against Tomorrow, the collection The Best of Leigh Brackett, and the Skaith Trilogy: The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith. In each of those reviews, you will find more information on Leigh Brackett, her career and her works.
Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th century, you can find a number of Brackett’s stories and novels on Project Gutenberg. The Long Tomorrow itself is available in electronic form from a few free sources, but I am not sure of its copyright status, so I will not provide links to them.
The United States of America in Science Fiction
Whenever I prepare a review, I look for a theme or bit of history that is illuminated by the work. I have certainly read more than a few post-apocalyptic books over the last few years. Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny features a trip across a ruined America, but its message couldn’t be more different than that of The Long Tomorrow. On the other hand, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., written a few years after The Long Tomorrow, deals with some of the same issues of faith and human fallibility, although it is more concerned with the grand sweep of history than with individual characters. But as I read Brackett’s evocative descriptions in this book, I realized that this is not just another story with a post-apocalyptic setting. One of the main characters is the United States of America itself. The book looks at a country that has been brought to its knees, and how its society reacts to that trauma.
Some further consideration made me look back and realize how many of the other books I’ve reviewed in this column, even those set on other worlds, are infused with an American worldview. The idea that mankind has a manifest destiny among the stars is deeply rooted in the history of American expansion across the continent. While the TV show Star Trek prided itself on presenting international crews, the show was arguably as much about America’s frontier experience as it was about a far-future final frontier. The science fiction of my youth was filled with Americans transported into the past, into the future, into planetary romance situations, sidewise in time, or even into fantasy worlds. The most fantastic worlds and situations were presented through the lens of American culture and experience, even when the action takes place in supposedly far-future settings. For example, James H. Schmitz’s tales of telepath Telzey Amberdon depict her living in a future that, other than space travel and flying cars, looks on its surface a lot like 1960s American suburbia (although once she develops her powers, Telzey finds this placid exterior hides a world of criminals, murderers, and monsters—a stark juxtaposition I wonder if the author created deliberately).
This pervasive American viewpoint serving as the default lens for science fiction seems to have evolved as the science fiction community has changed and grown over the decades. As the field has developed, authors began stepping beyond the older conventions, looking at things from new perspectives and questioning past ideas and assumptions. Today, science fiction generally embraces a much broader perspective, taking on a more international character and drawing on many different kinds of cultural experiences and traditions, resulting in a greater variety of voices and viewpoints. The more I look back at the older science fiction I encountered as a young fan, those differences and changes become more obvious, in retrospect.
The Long Tomorrow
The book opens with a quotation from the fictional 30th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, “No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.” The rest of the book examines the consequences of that change. Foreign powers are not mentioned, which suggests they sustained damaged more than the U.S. in the nuclear exchange, and this transformed America does not have to worry about threats from outside its borders. There is very little sign of a strong federal or even state governments, which makes sense when even capitols are impacted by these population density limits. The limits also imply a very small military presence, if any, exists beyond local militias. Mass manufacturing would be impossible. The trauma and destruction of the atomic war has triggered an attempt to return to an agrarian and pre-technological society, a return to the “good old days” before the atomic war—a return that is (of course) impossible.
Len Coulter and his cousin Esau are coming of age in this new society. Their families are “New Mennonites,” people who have taken on the simpler Mennonite way of life. After the war, Mennonite and Amish communities gave those fleeing from destroyed urban areas a model for a new way of life that would allow them to survive. My wife is from central Pennsylvania, and it is easy to for me, having visited those communities, to imagine that Amish life could continue relatively unchanged after a disaster, although I can also see their society being overwhelmed by a massive influx of refugees. And in 1955, a pre-technological America wasn’t all that far in the past: My mother, just a few years younger than Brackett, grew up on a truck farm with an outdoor well, an outhouse, and no electricity, and remembered her father sometimes plowing the fields with a mule.
Brackett’s descriptions of Piper’s Run are rooted in a real place near where she and her husband lived for a time. She was always able to vividly evoke strange settings and cultures in her planetary romances, and here, based on actual locations, the backdrop comes to life brilliantly. Her depiction of the people and society of small-town America is compelling too. Brackett also does a brilliant job of capturing the angst of adolescence. Her protagonists Len and Esau Colter are restless and eager for new experiences. Len is captivated by his ancient grandmother’s tales of what life was like before the war. The two boys sneak away from home against their parents’ wishes to attend another local sect’s religious revival, and find themselves witnessing a violent mob that kills a man accused of being a tool of Satan for trying to bring back some of the old ways of life.
The two boys find a box left behind by the murdered man that contains a radio. They steal books that might help them figure out the device, and when they eventually get it working, the radio provides some evocative hints of a technological conspiracy behind the scenes, based in the mysterious city of Bartorstown—a place that everyone has heard of, but no one knows much about. Eventually, the boys become so discontented that they attempt to run away to Bartorstown by themselves. They end up in a larger riverfront town called Refuge, living as boarders in the house of a local judge and working for local businesses. The judge has a daughter, Amity, and both boys are attracted to her. There is a local businessman who wants to expand his business in violation of the 30th Amendment, and the judge not only threatens to tell the Federal authorities, but stirs up local sentiment as well. The tense situation ends with the citizens of a rival town murdering the businessman and burning not only the business, but most of the town of Refuge as well.
Len and Esau are saved when a man they know shows up, a trader named Hostetter. It turns out that he is a secret emissary of Bartorstown, and will take the boys there. Amity comes along, accompanying Esau. There is a long steamboat journey into the arid lands of the American West. Again, the descriptions are evocative, and I suspect that Brackett is describing locations she visited herself.
This is the point where, in Brackett’s planetary romances, the hero would find the McGuffin, use it to overthrow the status quo and set free the oppressed. But this book is about the struggles of real life, and in the end, the problems and solutions faced by the protagonists are not nearly as cut and dried. The novel’s ending is something I’m itching to discuss, so now I’m going to do something I rarely do, and head into spoiler territory. If you ever aspire to read the book and want to be surprised, please skip down to the “Final Thoughts” header at the end of the review…
Len is initially very disappointed by the reveal of a mundane, ordinary-appearing small community. He is then shown the secret of Bartorstown, an underground facility powered by a nuclear reactor. The reactor powers a massive computer, and when I say that, I mean “massive” in the way people in the 1950s imagined an advanced computer—a machine that fills a large part of a mountain. They hope to use the computer to develop a force field that can prevent nuclear detonations, which would allow civilization to grow again without fear of another atomic war. Len remains disappointed, as this all seems far-fetched to him, and is even more discouraged when they discover that the goals of the project may be unattainable. Len has seen the people of the outside world operating based on faith, and witnessed how problematic that can be—and here in Bartorstown, people are operating on faith as well, a blind faith that technology can fix humanity’s problems.
Len meets Joan, a local girl who is his opposite in many ways. All his life, he has been fascinated by technology, and dreamed of finding Bartorstown. And all her life, Joan has been in Bartorstown, dreaming of the outside world and the freedom that must exist there. Like the opposite poles of magnets, they are irresistibly attracted to each other. Joan convinces Len to take her to the outside world, and when he does, she is horrified by what she sees. Hostetter appears again to take them back to Bartorstown, as they know too much to be allowed to wander about. So they agree to go back, feeling no hope in either the promise of retreating into a bucolic but problematic past, or faith that a computer can produce a technological deus ex machina capable of saving humankind from itself.
As I noted above, the book is in many ways a story about America. It shows the allure of romanticizing America’s past, but is also blunt in portraying the dark side of that past: the closed minds, the rejection of science and reason, the prejudices, and the danger of mob violence. It is not hard to imagine that dark side coming to the fore after a nuclear conflict; after all, we can see those currents reflected in our society today. And the book shows the uniquely American faith that technology can solve our problems, and save us from ourselves, when in fact, technology is limited by the fallibilities of the humans who build and operate it.
The Long Tomorrow is one of the best books I have read in years. Leigh Brackett is always an entertaining and engaging writer, even when grappling with serious subjects. Along with the novel’s coming-of-age story and ruminations on human nature, she shines a mirror on the character of America, and what she sees is not always pretty.
Now it’s time to turn the floor over to you. If you’ve read The Long Tomorrow, or have comments on Brackett’s work, I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.