Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review of 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 jumping into the void of leadership that followed, new laws were enacted to prevent cities from developing larger than 1,000 people.  Large gatherings of minds 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.  Neighbor keeping close watch over neighbor, technology such as radios and tvs is the work of the devil, the simple life of farming 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 he and his cousin Esau sneak out of their houses that night to attend a tent meeting in a nearby village.  Witness to a fire and brimstone sermon, the meeting ends with the violent death  of a man believed to have forbidden technology.  Len and Esau accidentally coming into possession of the radio in the resulting chaos, 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 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 for 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 does the parallel occur.  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 not shuffling 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 post-apocalyptic novels, 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 many years after such a catastrophe, 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 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.  (See more comments below regarding addional comparative works.)

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.

As I found the review overburdened, I moved the following three points to this “appendix”:

1. I cannot understand a Damon Knight quote found on Wikipedia: “Unhappily, as [The Long Tomorrow] progresses, it seems more and more to support Koestler's assertion that literature and science fiction cancel each other out. This novel illustrates a problem which science fiction writers are going to have to solve before long: how to write honestly about a mildly speculative future without dragging in pseudoscientific props by the cartload.”  The ‘cartload’ simply does not exist.  Brackett postulates a cavern sized computer, which as of 1955 was the direction computing was headed, and a nuclear reactor used for power generation—the first commercial reactor put into use around the time the novel was published.  That’s it in terms of “mildly speculative” technology.  There are no space ships, no ray guns, no aliens come to solve humanity’s problems, no escalation of fantastic science clashing with the preceding tech—simply nothing that warrants Knight’s criticism.  In fact, when juxtaposed against technology today, the novel is outdated, leaving me in strong wonder as to what precisely he was on about. 

2. Another comparison: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Brackett and Rand’s novels both featuring a secret region wherein the latest technology is developed by willing, bright minds, an important difference lies in their approaches to the proliferation of the resulting technology.  Where Rand posits the ownership and profit should remain with the person whose original idea it was, Brackett approaches the resulting knowledge from a communal perspective.  The people Len and Esau encounter, while unable to avoid clashes of ego, nevertheless have the benefit of all humanity in mind when theorizing  and experimenting, thus forming a strong juxtaposition to the ‘personal gain’ and ‘what’s mine is mine’ motif of Atlas Shrugged, and in turn indicating Brackett to be the more progressive of the two women.

3. And lastly, an expanded comparison: Published four years after The Long Tomorrow, Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is seemingly in defiance of Brackett’s conception.  In his novel, Miller Jr. posits that if it weren’t for the Catholic church and its extensive libraries and vaults, knowledge which forms the base of humanity’s understanding of the world would not survive such apocalypses, and therefore civilized progress would not have a chance.  Disproportionate, however, Miller Jr. never reconciles the fact that it was the Catholic church who, for large chunks of the preceding millennium, attempted to block or control what knowledge society had access to—knowledge that might have seen the Renaissance occur sooner than it did.  There are several important reasons the Dark Ages are called the Dark Ages, but certainly one of the strongest is the stranglehold the church had on society and its desire to maintain the status quo—precisely the religious conservatism Brackett portrays in The Long Tomorrow.  The struggle to overcome this paradox (i.e. the church’s interests vs. humanity’s interests) is the main flaw of Miller Jr.’s novel, and what makes Brackett’s the more relevant.*

Since posting this review, I have been kindly informed by Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations that I am grossly under-informed in my knowledge of Medieval history, and that my statements are based on urban myths.  Real history in fact pointing toward the opposite situation, the church, it seems, is not the pariah I make them out to be.  Rather than cover my tracks and delete the content, I've added this note.


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  2. Jesse, this is a great review. I can't wait to read this one. I think it's always interesting that religious conservatism is deployed to "suppress" in these 50s novels rather than, for example, local authorities who are finally happy to not have the power of the state and can do what they wish. But then again, I might be over simplifying the divide.

  3. The Church did stifle the Mind of humanity. This is not an urban legend. Read The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey or see the movie Agora.

  4. My guess is the truth lies in the middle, not to mention is heavily contextualized by precisely which period in time we're referring to. The setting of Agora, for example, is before Christian dominanance of the Western world. That being said, of course there are classic examples of moments in which the Church protected its own interests by denying science, e.g. maintaining non-Euclidian or flat Earth theories long after they'd been debunked by science. It's a tough one.

    But overall, I still believe the Church is not in humanity's best interest in terms of knowledge and humanism. I read two news stories this morning, one about a Christian museum in the US which puts cavemen alongside dinosaurs and the Christ cosmology (sorry, incompatible), and the other about a Chechen student publicly beheading a teacher in Paris for teaching a free speech class which featured a cartoon of Allah (sorry, not a shining light of wisdom to the world). The vision Brackett puts forth is far more humanist in aim.

    1. That should have been "...maintaining a non-Copernican view of flat Earth..."