The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
If indeed social movements occur in cycles that over time have a net result of zero, what then is the value of scientific pursuit? If humanity will inevitably revert to primitivism, of what use is maneuvering toward that fuzzy idea of ‘civilization’? Is it just to give us something to do with our time on Earth? Is it an innate, unavoidable aspect of being human we should shun? Is it just false hope? Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? These questions and more Leigh Brackett examines in her oft-overlooked 1955 magnum opus The Long Tomorrow. A simple tale, it nevertheless lays bare one of the most fundamental questions we face: to what goal should humanity strive?
Post apocalypse, The Long Tomorrow posits an America where technologically advanced civilization was put to blame for the catastrophe of global nuclear war that followed upon Hiroshima. Religious groups jumped into the void of leadership that followed and new laws were enacted to prevent cities from developing larger than 1,000 people. Because large gatherings of minds were seen as the root cause for the development of such destructive technology, in the years that followed America became a scattering of pastoral micro-communities of religious groups of varying fervor. With neighbor keeping close watch over neighbor, technology such as radios and TVs were viewed as the work of the devil, and the simple life of farming became the norm.
The Long Tomorrow opens with Len Colter contemplating a sin. Living in Piper’s Run, a New Mennonite community in the former Ohio, the mere thought has his mind burning. Thus it is with reluctance that he and his cousin Esau sneak out of their houses that night to attend a tent meeting in a nearby village. After a fire and brimstone sermon, the meeting ends with the violent death of a man believed to have forbidden technology. In the resulting chaos, Len and Esau accidentally coming into possession of the radio. Curiosity gets the better of them, and after hiding it in a tree, the two begin spending their nights trying to figure out how the strange device works. But when their community discovers the radio, a scandal breaks out, and Len and Esau, whipped and punished, must make a decision: remain in Piper’s Run or see where destiny will take them.
Given the rural life depicted, philosophical questions asked, and an everyday man’s approach to dialogue and social interaction, The Long Tomorrow is reminiscent of a John Steinbeck novel. No one novel in particular, but the parallel occurs with the horses and quotidian details of farming, as well as the ability to place within the simplest of scenarios some of the most basic and important questions regarding belief and what’s good for society. That Brackett likewise does this in intelligent fashion while maintaining her characters’ humanity places her novel in company with the American great.
But where Steinbeck’s concerns were often regarding class and the economic systems underpinning class struggle, Brackett’s concerns are more knowledge-based. Focusing on the value, purpose, and application of science, nuclear technology is the crux of her story. Knowledge that can be both utilized to supply electrical power to mankind as well as destroy it in terrible fashion, Len must ultimately grapple with the idea of whether the pursuit of knowledge benefits mankind. Brackett doesn’t shuffle the deck in favor of either side; the decision is anything but straight forward. The positives and negatives of both conservative and progressive views are put on display, making Len’s decision all the more difficult. Thus, despite the seeming anti-religious stance of the plot summary above, a brighter side of pastoral life is displayed, in turn lending the outcome a strong sense of real-world relevance.
The Long Tomorrow thus forms a wonderful yang to the ying of George Stewart’s 1949 Earth Abides. Both are post-apocalyptic novels, but Stewart, in rather clumsy, unrealistic fashion, depicts the descent of mankind from civilized to primitive in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. The Long Tomorrow’s starting point is many years after such a catastrophe, and Brackett questions the value and possibility of re-climbing the ladder, of bringing humanity back to a state of ‘technologically advanced civilization.’ Relaying the resulting quandary in terms far more human than Stewart’s, one can appreciate the sentiment that Mother Earth will outlive us all, but without humanity, there would be no story. Brackett’s novel is thus the more relevant of the two, as no matter what point in humanity’s existence is examined, the questions remain valid.
In the end, The Long Tomorrow is a wonderful novel that examines the long-term value of technology in human terms. Set in a bucolic, post-apocalyptic scenario wherein nuclear technology has humanity in fear of its own creations, one young man, coming of age, grapples with the value of furthering the research into technology, with both sides of the argument fully represented. Involving religious fundamentalism, founded and unfounded fears, the concerns and motivations of human behavior, the false and real hopes technology offers, and the future of mankind, Brackett shows insight into humanity through the characters — as rational and irrational as they are — to make a statement beyond the text.
For this balance, The Long Tomorrow is a more satisfactory novel than not only George Stewart’s Earth Abides, but also the novel which most often steals the spotlight of post-apocalyptic humanism: A Canticle for Leibowitz. Not just apologetics for urbanity and technology, the novel extends beyond politics to touch upon one of the most basic and complex relationships existent: humanity and it’s technology in the long term.
I enjoyed listening to Ben Rameka’s performance in Audible’s audio edition.