The Long Tomorrow
by Leigh Brackett
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 5, 2020
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Leigh Brackett became the first woman to be a Hugo finalist for Best Novel for 1955's The Long Tomorrow, at least as far as current records show. When I originally created the Hugo/Nebula pages, the only listings I could find for the first few years were just the winners, and that is still the case for 1953, '55, and '58. A few years ago a fan discovered a progress report from the 1956 WorldCon that included the other finalists. That was the year Heinlein won his first Hugo, and the rest of the line-up was equally impressive, with Brackett joining the likes of Isaac Asimov, C. M. Kornbluth, and Eric Frank Russell for Best Novel. I've edited that year's entries, which boasts quite a few recognizable names in the short fiction categories as well, including C. L. (Catherine) Moore, for a story written in collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner.
This is infinitely better written than Brackett's recent Retro Hugo winner, which I couldn't even finish. It boasts fluid, lyrical prose, well-drawn characters, and an interesting perspective on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. George R. Stewart was among the first to write about a plague wiping out most of humanity, whereas the predominant theme in SF at that time was of nuclear holocaust. Brackett didn't show the immediate aftermath, instead she starts two generations, about 80 years, following the war. By that time the situation had settled into a calm, pastoral existence. Since cities and major infrastructure were destroyed, survivors turned to those who were more attuned to living off the land already, the Amish and Mennonites. The New Mennonites became the new leaders, with the justification that their lifestyle was far removed from the culture that caused the war. At the time this was written there were only 22 Constitutional Amendments, but in the time of the story there were at least 30, that one limiting the population of towns to no more than 1000 people, no more than 200 buildings per square mile. Since cities were forbidden to be built again, small communities dedicated to farming and handcrafts dotted the land. No more cars, no electricity, no machine more complicated than a steam engine. The strictness of what was allowed to be discussed, and taught to the younger generations, varied somewhat from town to town, but not by much.
One thing spoken of only in secret was the rumor of Bartorstown, a mysterious community somewhere in the West, where it was said that machines and technology were still used, with the intent to build new cities. Len Colter had heard those stories, had dreamt of Bartorstown almost as long as he could remember, and his cousin Esau shared that fascination. Esau's father is much stricter than Len's, beating him with the slightest provocation. Len's father relies mostly on his calm, authoratitive voice, but that changes when his older brother forces his hand. Esau steals something from a trader, later discovering it is a radio, although it takes him and Len a long time to figure out how it works. When they are discovered they are beaten, and also sentenced to a birch caning in front of the whole community. They have other ideas of course, and are able to sneak away. Part 2 begins their journey south to the Ohio River, where they find work in the port town of Refuge. Part 3 is when they finally find Bartorstown, although it does not live up to their imaginations.
Decades ago I read several other post-apocalyptic books from the mainstream; On the Beach and Alas, Babylon for sure, although my memory of them is extremely vague. The Long Tomorrow preceded both of them by several years, and right now I'd say it's at least the equal of them. It would likely have a stronger reputation if not for the fact it was published by an SF imprint. It is good, and slightly unpredictable, but that also points to one of its faults. All along the journey it is Len who seems the most intelligent, the one most likely to make a go of it if he ever did find Bartorstown. Esau was not as intelligent, but more impulsive, even belligerent towards Len on several occasions, which I think was due to his feeling inferior to Len's intellect. Yet when they finally get to Bartorstown, it is Len who is less accepting of the situation, which is not what they expected. The actions of the trader from whom they had stolen the radio, who later helped them flee Refuge, and took them to Bartorstown, are inconsistent. He kept warning Len away from Bartorstown, yet took them there. Once there he told them they could never leave. I assume he thought Len would eventually find Bartorstown on his own, but I find that highly unlikely, considering where it was, and how well it was camouflaged. I've rated this 3 stars on Goodreads, but that might be slightly rounded up a bit, but no higher than 3.5. Up until Part 3 I had been thinking closer to 4. It was worth reading, and I can recommend it, but mainly for Brackett's prose rather than the story itself.
It's written in third-person, primarily from Len's perspective, but she almost slipped into first-person at the conclusion. Len was used to the rolling hills, forests, and farmlands of Ohio, at first despondent over the bleakness of the plains, and the high desert around Bartorstown. Yet he was also awed by it. The following passage is toward the end of Part 2, as they trek across the plains. If only all of the plot lived up to this beautiful prose.
"The character of the country changed. The green rolling forest land flattened out and stretched incredibly across a gray-green plain, that seemed to go on and on over the rim of the world, drawing a man's gaze into its emptiness until his eyes ached with it, and until he searched hungrily for a tree or even a high bush to break the blank horizon…Len hated the flat monontony of it, after the lush valleys he was used to. At night, though, there was a grandeur to it, a feeling of windy vastness all ablaze with more stars than Len had ever seen before."
I'm less inclined to check out any of Brackett's other space opera stories, even though I could get several of them free from Project Gutenberg. But she also wrote mysteries and suspense thrillers, the first of which brought her to the attention of Howard Hawks, who hired her to co-write the screenplay for The Big Sleep. She also wrote some westerns, both novels and screenplays, in which I might find descriptive prose like the passage above. This is still in print, or at least once again in print. I wouldn't say go out of your way for it, but if you happen across a cheap old paperback, or see it at the library, it's short enough and good enough to give a chance. Just don't be surprised if you are also disappointed with Bartorstown.
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