First published in 1955
Despite its acclaim as an early vision of America after a nuclear war, The Long Tomorrow doesn't have the same impact as the best examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. Leigh Brackett's 1955 novel nonetheless deserves its status as a science fiction "classic," albeit more for the message it delivers than for the quality of the story it tells.
After the war, cities are widely regarded as a source of wickedness, although Len Colter's grandmother remembers them with fondness, as places with electricity and indoor plumbing, supermarkets and movie theaters. The people best equipped to survive the annihilation aren't city dwellers but those who are accustomed to living a simple rural life. The Mennonites have multiplied, a trend that is enhanced by a constitutional amendment prohibiting cities of more than one thousand residents. The religious values that inform the Mennonite leaders also (not so coincidentally) work to their economic advantage. The Mennonites, however, have little use for members of another fast-growing religion, the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists who preach hatred and urge that sinners (including those who advocate urban growth) be subjected to the usual range of biblical torments, including death by stoning.
Len has a rebellious instinct that no amount of whipping will extinguish. His desire for knowledge, his will to know what exists in the world beyond the village limits, might be sinful -- the sin of pride, his father tells him -- but Len is willing to accept damnation for the sake of learning the truth. After his grandmother explains that, before the war, the government built a town in the west called Bartorstown, populated with scientists dedicated to a secret project, Len resolves to find it, hoping it will be the source of enlightenment he craves. Thus Len and his cousin Esau begin a journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape. The truth about Bartorstown comes as a surprise and the story takes an interesting turn as it nears the end.
Like many dystopian tales, The Long Tomorrow has a cautionary message. This one is about the evils of intolerance and thought-control, the value of independent thinking. The fear of cities expressed in Brackett's novel is really a fear of progressive thinking, a belief that life was better (in modern terms, that "family values" were stronger) in the good old days. Knowledge is condemned because it was misused; a retreat from knowledge is seen as the path to salvation. Still, as Len comes to realize, even if we can be cleansed of sin (as his people believe), we can never be cleansed of knowledge -- "there is no mystical escape from it." Deliberate ignorance is not the antidote to dangerous knowledge; wisdom is. Perhaps themes that were compelling in 1955 now seem dated, but the argument that there should be limits to knowledge, particularly when knowledge contradicts biblical teachings, retains a twenty-first century following. The argument that cities were destroyed in a nuclear war because they were "sinful" finds echoes in similar remarks made about New Orleans after Katrina.
I've never been as appreciative of Brackett's prose as some sf fans. She was a perfectly capable writer, but (at least to me) her style is no more "literary" than that of many other well-recognized sf writers of her era. Still, her writing becomes more resonant as the story progresses. On occasion the novel has the flavor of a western; at other times there's a hint of Huckleberry Finn, although Huck's trip down the Mississippi is vastly more eventful than Len's underwhelming voyage along the Ohio River. Other "message" novels manage more subtlety than this one. Although The Long Tomorrow doesn't make it into my personal canon of cherished sf novels from the 1950s, it endures as an enjoyable read.