Leigh Brackett: The Long Tomorrow

August 3, 2015

9780575131569I’d never come across the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ until I read the introduction to this SF novel from the 1950s; it’s an interesting label, referring to a cluster of stories from the US which imagined that a nuclear war was somehow survivable. This got me thinking: given the size of the United States, and the relative emptiness of a lot of it, even a major attack (major for then being rather different from major nowadays) would leave large tracts ‘relatively’ unaffected; the same would never be true in the crowded small island that is the UK, which is why our post-nuclear tales are rather grimmer and more horrific…

Novels like this take us back to a simpler age, perhaps even in a romanticised frontiersman fashion. In the post-war world of The Long Tomorrow, a 30th amendment to the US constitution has forbidden settlements of more than a thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile: immediately we are back with the small-town US that existed before today’s complex world. Another particularly American trait of such novels is the re-emergence of fundamentalist religion in myriad forms, embracing the frontier-days violence which (to an outsider) always seems to lurk just below the surface. Religion enforces ignorance and social conformity.

Leigh Brackett explores the obvious question: should the survivors attempt to recreate the complex civilisation of the previous time? can knowledge, once gained, ever be forgotten? Religion complicates the issue by suggesting it’s forbidden knowledge and the war was God’s warning.

Two curious boys rebel against the small-town mentality, seek and eventually find the mysterious settlement where a small group still secretly pursue the learning of the past; it is not what they expect and in their different ways they are challenged; there is real tension between the dangers of stasis and the impossibility of turning back the clock; equally, to go back to the mistakes of the past is no solution.

Something which struck me forcefully as I read were the uncanny similarities between this novel and one of my favourite-ever SF novels, Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was written a few years later, and is still, for my money, the more powerful and moving of the two, perhaps because it is less cosy; I wondered how much, if at all, Miller had been moved or influenced by Brackett’s earlier novel. Both are set in a post-nuclear war US, both posit a highly religious society springing up in the aftermath, both explore the idea of the preservation and rediscovery of the dangerous knowledge of the past; Miller is more pessimistic in his conclusion.

The Long Tomorrow is a really good, fast-paced read; perhaps the ideas are rather predictable, but it’s a novel to make you think about us as a species.

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