I have to admit that I didn’t know Leigh Brackett was a renowned science fiction author. I only knew her through her screenwriting credits. In 1946 she worked with William Faulkner on Howard Hawks’ film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In 1959, she worked with Hawks again on his 1959 film Rio Bravo, one of my favorites. She returned to Raymond Chandler in 1973, writing the screenplay for Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye:. And, perhaps most famously these days, before she died in 1978, she completed the first draft of George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (though she died before she had a chance to revise it and her draft was substantially rewritten by both Lucas and Lawrence Kasdun (you can see her script online here, where you might be surprised to meet Minch rather than Yoda, as well as the ghost of Luke’s father — that’s right, it isn’t Darth Vader yet)). I was excited, then, to find her book The Long Tomorrow (1955) (with its Chandleresque title) in The Library of America’s box set American Science Fiction: Classic Novels of the 1950s, a set that just keeps getting better.
For me, one of the most striking things about this science fiction novel is its opening third, which has a near complete lack of technology. The story takes place in the United States in the future, but it feels like United States in the 1850s. The protagonist, Len Colter, would feel at home in Huckleberry Finn, as Len too struggles to make sense of the surrounding conventions. The severe religious atmosphere, with its satisfied sense of certainty and distrust of technology and change, is wonderfully handled in layers composed of criticism and respect. The outside world is richly presented, yet this is a story of an inner world and the loss of innocence, when innocence is forced upon you.
The epigraph to the story is the fictional Thirtieth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.
Sometime a couple of generations before there was some kind of nuclear war. The fear of large cities is the fear of technology, the fear of amassing power, and also the fear of seeing so much destruction in the blink of an eye. The destruction was so great that essentially there is nothing left. Those best able to survive in such a world happened to be those who were already preparing to live in it: religious sects that advocated simple living all along, and they now hold power, nationally (not that a lot of trans-national communication appears to be happening) and locally. They simply will not let things get out of hand again.
The Long Tomorrow is divided into three sections. In the first, we are immersed in this antique world, populated by New Mennonites, where a religious revival — and a stoning — are commonplace. It’s on a farm in Piper’s Run, “where opportunities for real sinning were comfortably few,” where we first meet fourteen-year-old Len Colter.
Len’s family represents the relationship of three generations to the great destruction — or scourge. Len’s grandmother lived in the world before the destruction, and she mortifies her family when she slips and says, “It was a good world! I wish it hadn’t ended.” Len’s father is severe, though loving, and represents the first generation born in and right after the world ended. He has had a hard life and internalized the post-destruction messages — it helps that things are noticeably better in Piper’s Run in this new world than they had ever been when he was growing up.
But Len (and his friend Esau) is removed from the terror. In fact, the terror he witnesses is the suppressive violence enacted on anyone who seems even an ambiguous advocate for change.
I want to step in here and say that I didn’t find the world Brackett rendered to be one-dimensional. It’s easy to imagine such a world because we see it so often in fiction. Piper’s Run, though, is extreme but presented in a way that also makes it somewhat understandable. Len’s father comes from a place of love and protection and is not presented as maniacal. Len truly loves and understands his father. He just thinks he’s wrong. I think this is a delicate impression, and Brackett does it well.
Len loves to hear his grandma’s stories, and he’s happy that in her old age she’s more reckless in telling them. His dreams are fed by her stories of cities, cars, colors. His dreams, becoming more voracious, are also tantalized by the rumor that one city still exists somewhere out west, a city called Bartorstown. One day he and Esau find a functioning radio receiver and are certain it’s a sign that Bartorstown really exists. They listen to it when they can, hoping something will be transmitted.
The book doesn’t necessarily go where I thought it would. To summarize without spoiling, in the second (and unfortunately slightly dull) section, Len and Esau have abandoned Piper’s Run and go to work in one of the larger cities by the river. Here economic forces have stamped out some — not all, but some — of the religious fervor as well as exposed problems with the country’s current plan. Change is still feared, yet here it is a bit harder to hide all thoughts of change.
Things pick up again nicely when in part three — it can’t be a spoiler, can it? — they go to Bartorstown and find themselves severely disappointed, and not in the way one might expect.
I bring up part three because it’s there that the themes of the book are most satisfyingly explored. Len’s loss of innocence leads him exactly where he always wanted it to be, but he finds there more oppressive forces that he never could have anticipated. He finds there people who want to escape their own inescapable prisons. And he finds himself unable to return to where he once was.
I know this sounds like he finds evil and corruption at Bartorstown, as if Brackett is warning us to be careful what you wish for. But it’s not that at all. It’s simply not that simple. Again, Brackett shows that while she’s created a convincing, interesting world, she’s much more interested in exploring the human conscience.