Friday, July 7, 2017

The Long Tomorrow

Unlike the other classic science fiction books in this series of posts, I have read the Long Tomorrow before. It's been awhile. Leigh Brackett is by far my favorite writer of the "Sword & Planet" genre. Here, she turns to a post-apocalypse tale that is equally beautiful and haunting. Published in 1955, it was a timely exploration of post-nuclear-holocaust society. Two generations after a nuclear war, the survivors have come to blame technology for the world's destruction. The Constitution is amended to ensure that no cities will ever develop again, placing limits on population per square mile. Religious sects who did without technology before the holocaust - namely, the Mennonites - make the adjustment easily and come to wield great power. Len and Esau, two young Mennonite boys, witness a religious mob stone a man to death because they believe he is from Bartorstown - a secret place where technology still reigns. Len is thoughtful and resents his small world. The boys eventually steal an old radio and some textbooks and learn that Bartorstown is real. Fleeing punishment, they join a man from Bartorstown who keeps his eye out for them as they travel. First they come to the town of Refuge, only to find tragedy there when a local man wants to build a structure that will defy the population ban. Fleeing there by river, Len and Esau - and Esau's newly pregnant girlfriend - continue their long quest to find Bartorstown. Do they find it? Yes. Is it everything they thought it would be? No. Esau, not as deep a thinker as Len, adjusts easily. But once there, Len begins to doubt. He meets a girl named Joan who, having lived her whole life in Bartorstown, wants to get away. Len's paradise is Joan's prison. This is one of the central themes of the novel - that "elsewhere" always seems better. In the end, Len must make a decision - not so much about whether to stay or go, but about what kind of a man he is going to be. I won't spoil any more surprises, because the book does have some great twists and turns. The whole thing is also suffused with a sense of love and loss - that Tolkienesque idea that something is beautiful because it won't last - and with Brackett's low-key but poetic prose. This is my favorite post-apocalypse novel, right up there with Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney. Part epic western, part speculative future story, The Long Tomorrow is definitely one of the finest science fiction books of the 20th century.

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