The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett

Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin [7].

That’s a killer first line. And now I want some cornbread.

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With its bucolic setting and unsophisticated characters, as well as some rambunctious river moments with two growing boys, it’s as though The Long Tomorrow invites the tradition of Mark Twain into the realm of SF, supporting the success of Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia stories and setting the stage for Clifford Simak’s pastoral entreaties for peace in the following decade. (Yes, I know Twain wrote sci-fi. I saw that episode of Next Gen, too.)

An excellent example of a post-WWII attempt at post-apocalyptic fiction, a tradition that has endured and endured and endured. I often wonder if, after we finally suffer the apocalypse that humanity seems to crave, will we then sit around the campfire telling gripping stories about copy machines, fast food tacos, and skyscrapers.

Of course we will. But in The Long Tomorrow, Brackett explores that same question.

Some eighty years after nuclear war, humanity’s survivors subsist in pastoral communities ruled by religious sects, while a federal law forbids the establishment of cities. Len and Esau, teenagers of the New Mennonites of Piper’s Run, fantasize about the cities of the past, with their metal skyscrapers, electric lights, and automobiles. When the punishments for their technological transgressions go too far, the boys decide to break free of their stifling community in search of the mythical Bartorstown, where technology and science are celebrated and preserved.

Brackett is better known for her screenwriting career, with credits on popular hardboiled crime movies and some involvement in The Empire Strikes Backand even most of her own bibliography is crime and space opera stuff. The Long Tomorrow is an unusual piece in the Brackett oeuvre, though many consider it to be her best. Whatever the state of her other novels, this is an excellent place to start. (For more on her other works, Admiral Ironbombs has been having a field day with Brackett. Seven entries!)

Extremely readable and thematically immense, The Long Tomorrow tugs on the worries of a post-war world, a planet sitting on its own atomic power while two superpowers wobble in a precarious balance. This coming-of-age tale about Len and Esau mirrors the loss of innocence of post-WWII nations, where mid-20th citizens grapple with the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge and technology, while mid-20th nations grapple with each other. Len and Esau want to know things. They’re fearful, but warnings of danger don’t stop them.

TheLongTomorrow3Could you give up all the mystery and wonder of the world? Could you never see it, and never want to see it? Could you stop the waiting, hoping eagerness to hear a voice from nowhere, out of a little square box? [42]

The boys dance a precarious dance, both experiencing a spectrum of convictions, but never at the same time, constantly in flux with one another. Constantly in a bid to outdo and overpower one another. They blame each other for their uncomfortable pursuits. They are never in harmony.

Len. Esau. Lenin. USA. I know it’s the wrong time and conflict for Lenin, but maybe? Just because “Stal” is a crappy name? And maybe “Nik” is too obvious. (I searched around to see if someone else noticed this, and came up empty. So maybe I’m stretching. Me? Stretching? Never!)

But as much as this taps into the current events of the time, this is no study in polemics. Brackett explores the arc along with the reader, and questions are left to drift in the post-nuclear wind. Is knowledge worth the sacrifice of blissful ignorance? When the boys finally get their wish, their skins practically crawl with fear when confronted with certain technologies. Maybe ignorance sounds good again. But, can one ever return to ignorance? (Think on this before you judge the ending.)

Of the flaws, the women are thin in character and agency (read: annoying), typical for fifties SF, but surprising to see from a female author. We do get people of color, a tiny bit, but the one Hispanic is an alcoholic, and Len can’t help noticing the beautiful white skin of the (assumed to be) Native American daughter. This thinness does, however, lend some validity to the product-of-their-time apologists (myself included). The fifties just sucked for women and POCs, even in imaginary tales, even when written by women.

But, it’s remarkable how much Brackett packs in to this 200-page novel based on themes of Cold War social tensions, the risk of knowledge, the power of individuality, and socio-psychological conditioning. She explores post-apocalyptic power structures, the roles of religion in times of fear, and the manifestations of oppression in various societies.The tale feels literary as Brackett experiments with structure and foreshadowing. Her protagonists are developed, not just as agents of the narrative like many early SF characters, but as independent personalities. Len and Esau change and grow, sometimes in unpredictable ways that only make sense upon reexamination.

I’m happy to have found such a satisfying piece of fifties SF with Leigh Brackett. Nothing I’ve read from the fifties comes close to this level of sophistication.

TheLongTomorrow2Recommended for readers who want to read fifties SF, but can’t stand the stilted prose.

Recommended for readers looking for proof that women have been writing SF for a long time, and doing it well (better).

Recommended for readers who want to like Bradbury, but think he’s too heavy-handed with the metaphors.

Recommended for readers who love their post-apocalyptic fiction on the soft side.

 

 

 

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26 thoughts on “The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett

  1. Khan says:

    I think I’m going to check this one out, seeing how I need a new book. Looking forward to reading your other reviews.

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  2. Wow, glad to see you really liked this one! I had some reservations when I first read it—I still think the pastoral first parts are stronger than the last act—but my opinion has mellowed because it’s so damn vivid and memorable. Unlike anything else at the time, too, except for Simak and Bradbury as you note. Probably the most underrated 1950s apocalypse work. It’s also very unique for Brackett, kind of a glimpse at the career she could have had if she hadn’t gone into screenwriting… Her other SF were mostly adventure stories.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I am so impressed by Brackett now and I will definitely look for more of her fiction. (Her draft of the Empire Strikes Back is just a few hours away from me. I’d love to find out it’s better than the Lucas version.)

      The ending is a bit jerky, but I liked that it kept me guessing until the end, and the ultimate conclusion was the only one that made sense to me. Still, I agree that Len’s actions that led to that point were hard to buy. I mean, c’mon Len, let’s think this through first.

      But it makes me wonder if Brackett’s background in screenwriting influenced her to write that type of heightened, jerky ending. It seemed a bit television.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steph says:

    High praise. I know I usually stick to contemporary but this and your review of The Female Man look good.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I highly recommend both, although they are completely different styles. I think you would enjoy this one.

      As for The Female Man, I’ll post my review in a couple of weeks. I have much to say about it.

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  4. Joseph Nebus says:

    I feel confident that I’ve read this, but it was so long ago that not enough remains from it. I’ll have to check the archives.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I often feel that way about quite a few fantasy novels I feel certain I read a long time ago, but can’t remember a darn thing. I hate that feeling.

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  5. Joachim Boaz says:

    Still need to read this… Shocker, I know. I do have a copy but I wish it were one of the older editions.

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  6. Mike White says:

    Great review! It is an understated and underrated classic, packed with most of the big 50’s post-holocaust themes. It is also one of Gary Wolfe’s choices for the Library of America 50’s SF volumes. (Check out the recorded interview with Brackett on their site.)

    I found it interesting to read this one side by side with John Wyndham’s 1955 coming-of-age, post-nuclear religious conservative community novel, The Chrysalids (‘Rebirth’ in the American edition).

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  7. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I saw the review by Nicola Griffith on the LoA 50’s SF volumes, but I missed the recorded interview with Brackett, however. Need to go look at that again.

    That’s a great idea to read it with The Chrysalids. Wyndham is another author on my “meant to read, but never did” list.

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  8. Why aren’t there more hours in the day? More excited to read this now than I already way. Ridiculous thing: I hadn’t realized Leigh Brackett was a woman. Woot.

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  9. […] note, with an extremely satisfied review of a well-written fifties SF novel, written by a woman: The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett. This is a must read for anyone, anyone, who considers themselves a fan of […]

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  10. Okay then, that goes on the list to track down! Nice review!

    Love that opening line, and the comparison to Bradbury’s nostalgia, which is one of the things I love most about his work, has hooked me.

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  11. […] this novel could almost be the slighter, less ambitious sibling of Leigh Brackett’s 1955 The Long Tomorrow. A couple hundred years apart, Pangborn’s post-apoc world closely resembles Brackett’s […]

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  12. […] witty stuff I like, but, although the world feels like it could be the twin of Brackett’s (1955) The Long Tomorrow, Brackett did it […]

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  13. […] The best vintage SF I’ve read recently is Leigh Brackett’s pastoral post-apocalyptic tale, The Long Tomorrow (1955), and John Brunner’s fiery and textured Stand on Zanzibar (1968). David Gerrold will be a […]

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  14. John Stephen Walsh says:

    Brackett’s science-fantasy stuff is, I think, ripe for rediscovery. I read SWORD OF RHIANNON and hated it, then read it again a couple years later and enjoyed it–I suspect if one comes to it cold it’s a surprise, but if you approach it thinking it’s from the Robert E. Howard era, its virtues are clearer.

    Her draft of EMPIRE was a disappointment, not nearly as good as the final movie, because it was basically a 70s-style sequel, a retread of the original. She died before she could do another draft, and it’s too bad she was sick while writing it. I can drone on all day complaining about Lucas but I give him credit for retaining her name on the movie, since he could have removed it based on her script being based on his story, and then his revisions later changing it (there was a space platform ala the Death Star in his story).

    As for THE LONG TOMORROW, I put it with EARTH ABIDES and ENGINE SUMMER in my ‘rustic post-apocalypse’ trio.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think Chris at https://yellowedandcreased.wordpress.com/ has said much the same about Leigh Brackett’s earlier works. The Long Tomorrow sounds like an exception to her typical stuff. But I did love it so much.

      That’s what I’ve read about her contribution to the script, but I’m curious what I would think about it. It might sit well with a different type of fan. (Though maybe not. It sounds like you tend to enoy the same books I enjoy.)

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  15. […] from the line of Captain Future stories primarily written by Leigh Brackett’s husband, Edmond Hamilton, Danger Planet, originally titled Red Sun of Danger, is either #1, #5, or […]

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  16. […] This review originally appeared on From couch to moon. […]

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  17. […] The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett – What should have easily been the first Hugo-winning novel written by a female author, The Long Tomorrow is actually one of the few SF classics, especially from the fifties, that could be considered insightful, engrossing, and, above all, well-written. A far cry from Brackett’s other pulp and screenwriting, The Long Tomorrow is a Tom Sawyer-esque post-apocalyptic journey through America’s waterways. Deserving of its SF Masterworks status, it is a must-read for any SF fan and a lost opportunity for the Hugo tradition of failing to recognize “the best” of speculative fiction. […]

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