‘Fear makes stupid people do wicked things.’
Sci-fi blog par excellence io9 recently ran an article entitled ‘10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend To Have Read (And Why You Should Actually Read Them)’. To me this read as a somewhat comical challenge and I clicked the link, all primed to scoff at how I’d devoured the lot before I was out of high school. Oops. My showing was shameful, having scored a mere 4.5/10 – I’m totally counting the halfway through Infinite Jest I managed before leaving it behind in Thailand. My only salvation was having ticked off the first two on the list so I resolved to remedy the situation. First stop, an apparently famous post-apocalyptic book which I had bizarrely never heard of.
Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow was originally published in 1955, making it not only one of the oldest books on the list but also perfectly placed to capture the mood of the times. Judging by the story’s chronology, taking place a somewhat vague two generations after God rained his fiery wrath down upon the planet in the form of nuclear war, we’re pretty much in the present day albeit one which is totally unrecognisable. Following the destruction of the major cities society predictably fell apart. People came to realise that cities simply could not sustain themselves in the absence of infrastructure and depended so much on each other for support that once a few fell the others followed in domino style.
More importantly, the people of the cities realised that outside of their pampered habitat they were next to useless. A new society quickly arose using as its foundations those who had eschewed reliance on modern technology and stuck to the old ways – the Amish and their ilk. In this brave new world the USA is run by the New Mennonites, adhering strictly to their interpretation of biblical instructions and forbidding the construction of any new cities. Transgressions are punishable by suitably biblical punishment involving large rocks.
Len and Esau Colter are cousins growing up in River’s Run, both unfortunately cursed by what in our age would be a blessing – an innate and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The lure of truth and discovery leads them to run afoul of their laws and they soon find themselves on the run, exiled and in search of the mythical Bartorstown. Little more than a whispered folk tale it is rumoured to be a new city in the making, a place where curiosity is a virtue rather than a vice. To hot-blooded Esau and the tale’s brooding narrator Len it’s nothing short of nirvana.
Despite its age, going on 60 years now, The Long Tomorrow manages to avoid seeming dated in the slightest. Any anachronisms present in the telling manage to merge seamlessly with its depiction of a near-future world thrown a little into its own past. Throughout the course of the novel Brackett manages to deal admirably with a number of big-money topics, weaving a coming of age story into discussions of the merits and drawbacks of simple faith, the nature of mankind and the intrinsic neutrality of scientific discovery.
Reading this book was something of a revelation for me. Over the past six months or so I’ve read countless novels and non-fiction titles addressing the same issues with the benefit of modern hindsight. To find that someone as prescient as Leigh Brackett had been lurking behind the curtains has jerked me out of my torpor and led me into all kinds of classic sci-fi back alleys, hopefully for the better. And on another note, as a teacher this is one of those books which I would dearly love to teach a class some day. Wonder if the rights holders will let me attempt an abridged version for ESL purposes? Either way, whether you’re a teacher, a post-apocalypse/sci-fi fan or just a general reader this is one forgotten gem which should be shunted to the top of your reading list immediately.