Another Ace single: F-135, The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. A tale of post-apocalyptic Luddite Mennonites (try saying that one five times fast), which is generally considered Brackett’s nearly-high-water mark. Let’s make no bones about it, I’m a huge fan of Brackett, and old SF in general, so I spent some time tracking this one down.
Leigh Brackett has a rightfully earned reputation as the “queen of the pulps.” Back in the 1940s, she dominated the publications of small repute, such as Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Tales, with her yarns of a Mars that never was. Most of her work was in the planetary romance/swords-and-planets vein, but she had a strong writing style, beautiful at times, always action-packed, never a dull moment. In the 1950s and ’60s, she was still a highly reputable author in the field, and by the 1970s she had taken her brand of swashbuckling planetary romance to its logical (and awesome) extreme with her Skaith trilogy.
Nowadays, she’s known (if at all) for her screenplays, including Rio Bravo, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and the original draft of The Empire Strikes Back. That, in a nutshell, defines her style: combine the hardboiled-noir edge of Raymond Chandler films with the action and cinematography of the Howard Hawks westerns and give it the pulp-nostalgia feel and epic space opera backdrop of Empire and you’ve got Brackett. Actually, that comes pretty close to describing her short “The Halfling.” Her writing has some real moments of beauty, and she can spin some mean action scenes as well.
In post-holocaust America, technology is non-existent, having been blamed for the nuclear war which wrecked the world. Technology is actively opposed, set in stone by the 30th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; even cities are banned, with population limits set and rigorously enforced by neighboring villages. Fire-and-brimstone religion has come to dominate the countryside, with traveling old-tyme religion preachers roving the countryside to heap Hell’s damnation upon the wicked dream of technology.
Enter Len Colter and his cousin Esau, New Mennonite youngsters dreaming of the past glories retold to them by Len’s elderly grandmother. Against their fathers’ wishes, they sneak off to a revival meeting, where the preacher incites a mob to stone a trader to death on charges of trading in technology. Tech, we are told, comes from a secretive bastion known as Bartorstown… a name synonymous to Hell for most of the world, extending its scientific tentacles against the wishes of Godly men, which will undoubtedly destroy the world yet again.
The two kids are shocked by seeing the brutal death, but fascinated with the idea of Bartorstown, so they decide to run away and find its mythical technology. The middle half of the book is their travelogue en route to the mythical Bartorstown, with the final act occurring when they come as close to their dream as reality allows.
The first half of the book is fascinating, revolving around post-holocaust old-time religious fanaticism and Tom Sawyer-esque pastoral life. It is damn well written, believable and compelling at points. The middle and the end, however, quickly break down, after the speculative aspects show up. The charm is lost, and instead of focusing in on a point or vision, the book dims instead, unsure of how the ending will tie everything together.
Things start to build up around the idea of Bartorstown, which itself is kind of a letdown. Hype aside, the book gets too technical near the end. “Technical” probably isn’t the right word for it; instead of the first half’s subdued pastoral life and wide-eyed hope for the long-lost technical marvels, the second half gets oddly fascinated with the world’s religious mindset, and then the grim reality of Bartorstown. Oh, and the ending doesn’t really go anywhere; it makes sense, being the book’s message and all, but it’s not very satisfying.
For my money, Leigh Brackett is the best science fiction writer of her time, namely the pulp era. And according to many reviewers—including the blurbs on the cover—this book was her best work, “awfully close” to being a great novel. I can see what they mean; part of the book is of the right quality and strength to be considered literary, but when the genre parts come in, the literary values collapse. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing—most people who read SF are there to read SF, not esteemed literary fiction—but even the genre bits feel awkward and underdeveloped.
The book is still pretty solid, even 60+ years later. There are a few quibbles with the setting: for example, the damage of a nuclear war some three generations ago is largely psychological, as there are still plenty of functioning, non-mutant humans around, and no radiation hotspots or anything. I chalk this up to the fact it was written in the early-mid 1950s, back before the reality of nuclear war had set in. If you can get over the book’s biggest leap of logic—people outlawing technology and cities because of a nuclear holocaust—then the book probably doesn’t have anything to bother you with.
So. Is this book worth it?
Probably, depending on taste. If you’re a die-hard Brackett fan, or like old/retro science fiction, or are fond of post-apocalyptic tales, it’s worth picking up. It is a damn good read (at times), and I still have fond memories of the book, even though I found the last quarter disappointing. (It says a lot about Brackett when I’m disappointed by her, yet the book rates pretty good. I’m convinced Brackett can’t write a terrible book.) It’s still an enjoyable book, all these years later, if you’re willing to take it warts and all.
Still, this is not the work to sell newbies on Brackett, retro science fiction, or the post-apocalypse; it’s front-loaded, the second half sags with a lack of focus, and the last few chapters are kind of a mess. A lot of people love this one, a few hate it. I’m somewhere in the middle: it’s not god-awful, but nowhere near as good as it could have been, making it something of a disappointment that’s still strangely compelling. Brackett manages to pull off a lot of strong writing in the first half, but compared to her other work, this one is just left lacking. The Sword of Rhiannon and the Skaith trilogy are better Brackett introductions.