Fiction Review - "The Long Tomorrow" by Leigh Brackett

"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."

- 30th Amendment of the United States Constitution

As I've mentioned in my blog a few times, the post-apocalyptic genre is one that filled me with feelings of both dread and fascination as I grew up. Born in the early 70s I became aware of my world in the era of "Ronnie Rambo" and the Cold War heating up one final time. I remember playing the Gamma World Role Playing Game with our primitive mutants exploring the ruins of Pitz Burke. There were films set after the End, ranging from the "Mad Max" series to absolutely dreadful movies like "Threads" and "The Day After". (And I use "dreadful" not in the sense of a bad movie but rather an experience that can fill one with actual dread.)

However there is still the sense of fascination. We humans are an adaptable lot. We managed to survive ice ages and a lack of natural weapons by using our wonderful brains. Indeed many works of the post-apocalyptic genre assume that it is our wonderful brains that bring about our own doom, unleashing genies of nuclear warfare, bioweapons, and nanotechnology. But even with that we like to assume that humanity would find a way to endure and build itself back up. (Indeed Walter Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz takes this idea and runs with it.)

I'm not sure what the first science fiction set in the aftermath of a nuclear war was. However I'm pretty certain Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, first published in 1955, is among the first. The Long Tomorrow takes place some three generations after a nuclear war - the elderly grandmother of the primary protagonist, Len, was a child at the time of the nuclear war which demolished civilization.

Many of the tropes that have become hallmarks of the genre can be found in this novel - civilization knocked back to the 18th or 19th century, massive loss of life, expansion of religion. The United States still exists, albeit in a far more agrarian form - and for most people the federal government is a distant thing.

The novel follows our protagonist, Len Colter, and his cousin Esau, as teenage boys from their Mennonite village and out into the larger world where they grow to adulthood. Both of them have an intense curiosity about the world that used to be, something that is forbidden by their society. This is illustrated early on when at a religious gathering (that their fathers had forbidden them to go) the cousins witness a mob killing a man because he is supposedly from Bartorstown, a land dedicated to bringing back the forbidden ways which brought down God's wrath in the Destruction. However Len becomes obsessed with the idea of Bartorstown. The two dabble in forbidden technology and eventually leave their homes.

Settling in the town of Refuge we are introduced to more tension, with the cousins working for a merchant who wants to expand his business, though doing so will violate the 30th Amendment which sets a cap on the size of any community. There is also tension between the cousins, with both vying for the affections of the same woman, the daughter of a judge in the community. You get the sense that Len could build something for himself in the community but he cannot accept the deliberate refusal of progress. The tension eventually explodes, and the cousins are again on the move. It should be no surprise that they eventually find themselves in  Bartorstown.

One recurring theme in the novel is that of fanaticism - religious fanaticism causes many deaths and much destruction in the course of the tale. However, one of the characters later reveals there are other kinds of fanaticism as well. It also deals with the theme of the balance between discontent and finding a home. Obviously Bartorstown is not what Len hoped it would be. Meanwhile Esau finds that he's able to live pretty much anywhere and be relatively happy. There really isn't much of a judgment on who is right. Indeed, one criticism I'd level on the book itself is while I don't need to be spoon-fed everything I don't feel that topic got the closure it deserved.

Another criticism one might level at the book is simply it is a product of its time. All of the religions are Christian-based and there is really only one strong female character in the book and even she eventually becomes passive and follows Len's lead.

However, Ms. Brackett does deliver well on the tension between contentment and progress.Len's father is a good man who has found his place in the society he lives in. Len can't find that contentment - indeed he really can't find it anywhere. But his yearning for the old ways - which are also the way to the future - are delivered very well. Late in the book he is, for lack of a better term, seduced, by a woman who puts on a red dress from the time before the Destruction. Both the brightness of the color - a brightness not found outside of leaves - and the cut of the dress - do the job of filling him with desire - both for the woman and for the society that dress represents. (And being a novel of the 1950s, any seduction is far more implied than shown - and to be honest I think that makes it even more effective.)

As you can tell by some of my criticisms I didn't find this a perfect novel. I don't think it delivered the closure it really needed to on Len. But it definitely proved to be an enjoyable read and provided an interesting society, pointing the way to later works like Alas Babylon and A Canticle for Leibowitz. (The former I've yet to read though the latter is one of my favorite novels.)

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