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The Long Tomorrow: A Book Review: Part Two

Updated on December 13, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


This is part two of four in a series of reviews of science fiction novels, which are collected in a volume called, "American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956." The collection is published by The Library of America, copyright 2012. The editor is Gary K. Wolfe.

Today we're going to take a look at the schematics of the novel, The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. Again, the novel is short by today's standards, only 213 pages. But the complete reading experience it delivers, again, makes one wonder why today's novels are so long.

What will you be getting should you decide to read this book? That is the question.

First of all, let me say that I would have no problem with this book being categorized as mainstream literary fiction. That is because this book almost---Almost---transcends the genre. I don't mean any insult to science fiction by suggesting that it is a form of literature that needs to be "transcended." I simply mean that the novel wears almost none of the usual trappings of science fiction.

There is nothing uncanny going on in this world. There is no futuristic or alien science and technology put on display there. Every single thing that happens in this story could happen in real life. That is to say that there is that there is not one law of physics---as we know them---broken in this story.

Why then, is the story science fiction? Well, it is, of course, fiction because the story has not happened in real life. It is, as all fiction, "made up." It is "science" fiction because the world we're looking at, in these pages, is one brought about by science; or, rather, the mal-application of science. We're talking about a scenario that puts us a century after global atomic war almost destroyed the species.

That is the world of The Long Tomorrow. Let me tell you right now, that if you are looking to read a novel with a happy or at least a hopeful ending, forget it. There is no island of hope, no path to redemption in this book. I finished the book fearing the worst for that world.

Humanity will go on, even in diminished form, as long as it can until it cannot. That is what I took away from this novel---which is fine, of course.

The book has postmodernist implications, but does not present a postmodernist critique or a postmodernist thesis. What does that mean?

First of all, what in the world is postmodernism?

The most satisfying definition I've ever heard goes something like this: Postmodernism is the idea that, coming out of the Enlightenment, we did not---contrary to popular belief of the modernists---construct society in such a way as to bring humanity inevitable, inexorably onward and upward forward progress, peace, freedom, and justice. In other words, the postmodernist critique says that we did not "get it right" coming out of the Enlightenment.

Karl Marx is an example of a postmodernist thinker. His whole 'I don't think this capitalism thing is working out' could not be more postmodernist.

So, when I say that The Long Tomorrow presents us with "postmodernist implications," I mean that the story offers no hope for a better tomorrow. The scenario is, as I've said, a world one hundred years after global atomic war, popularly known as the Destruction.

As a result of this, the people have retrenched, dedicating themselves to one or another variant of fundamentalist religion. But much more important than a specific internalization of religion, was the commitment to a Amish-style lifestyle. The story makes it clear that when the Destruction had come, and technology eliminated as a result, the people who had been in the best position to cope, had been those who had always done without modern technology. The "Mennonites," among others were able to lead the people back to the simple life, agriculturally-based, at about the level of the steam engine.

Another consequence of the Destruction is the thirtieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, actually outlawing cities. Cities are seen as the mode of social organization that had, somehow, gathered and concentrated human wickedness, eventually bringing about the near-annihilation of the species. "Sin City" has been generalized. It is no longer safe to even allow the existence of cities.

Most people act on the belief that the only way to ensure humanity's survival is to hold society to a pre-industrial age level of technology. If technological advance is allowed at all---by this world's powers-that-be---it will be very carefully and rigidly controlled. We're looking at a people who no longer trust themselves.

In every story like this, in which "a new world is built upon the ashes of the old," there is always a "Forbidden Zone" of some kind, a specific geographical "No Man's Land." That is because the old world exercises a haunting presence upon the new one.

A Garden of Eden-Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil analogy is appropriate to our analysis of this novel. Personally, I can imagine the thought processes of the keepers of this new world order going something like this: Okay, so Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil after the Lord had expressly told them not to do so. We know what came next, the den of iniquity the world became as a result of this disobedience; and we know what the Final, Ultimate result of this First Folly was. But to Adam and Eve, the future had been a blank slate. They could not have known what would come next. Not that that is any excuse for disobedience of Him. But what is the excuse today? Some of us, alive today, actually lived through the Destruction. It was not that long ago! And there are those of us who would be tempted back to the wicked way. Do we not even learn from history? The only way we will be able to stay in God's merciful grace and survive is if we watch out carefully for any heresy about cities, the conveniences of the past, and especially Bartorstown!

Anyway, that is how I imagine the thought processes of the elders of this new age. In fact, the story reminds me of M. Night Shalaman's movie, The Village---but only very vaguely; the story in this novel is vastly superior to that in the movie, in my opinion.

Bartorstown. Just saying the name Bartorstown can literally get you killed under the right circumstances. Bartorstown as anathema is integrated into the religion of the people.

What is Bartorstown? Bartorstown has a double-sided presence in the novel. Bartorstown is a real place---as it turns out. Bartorstown has an equally substantive presence as a dark specter, the embodiment of dangerous, headstrong folly, willful wickedness, and all things formerly found in rightly outlawed cities, which had played their part in bringing about the Destruction.

That is the official line; and the way we are certainly given to understand that most people regard the name. But to a few other people Bartorstown does not bring dread. It exercises a grandly romantic hold on the imagination. Bartorstown, to them, is mystery, a symbol of better days in the past before the Destruction, and possibly better days to come in the future---if enough people dare!

The quest to get to Bartorstown drives the main character, Len Coulter and his cousin, Esau Coulter.

There is a saying: "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." Actually, I heard that line in the Kevin Spacey/Chazz Palminteri movie called The Usual Suspects. At any rate, that is yet another way in which Bartorstown needs to be understood.

Len Coulter wants to go to Bartorstown because he is a bright, inquisitive, thoughtful young man from the village of Piper's Run. He is tired of living in fear. He is tired of living in a community where thought and speech are carefully herded in certain directions: a narrow, God-fearing simplicity, humility, fear of the return of cities, and a general technophobia. He wants to leave behind that fanaticism. He wants to go to glorious, near-ethereal Bartorstown, where it is promised that a free thinking person can say and do what he wants; a place where someone can learn and grow, see and do; a place where a body can get down to do some real thinking.

Len eventually makes it to Holy Bartorstown and is not only disillusioned, but he finds something there that is deeply shocking. I won't say any more than that because I don't want to give away too many plot details.

When he arrives there, Len Coulter meets a young woman whose passion to leave Bartorstown equaled his own determination to reach that settlement. They get married and sneak away from the settlement---which, by the way, is strictly forbidden, which means they have to be brought back, which they are.

Here's the thing. Between both Len and Joan's (that's the young woman's name) experiences and views of "how the other half lives," as it were, no hope for a better tomorrow is found. We see no seeds for rebuilding the world society on a stronger, more durable, more peaceful basis. This profound hopelessness is some indication that there is something very structurally wrong with the way society had been constituted before the Destruction and after the catastrophe. This implied structural fault is what I mean when I say that the story presents a postmodernist implication.

Of course, we are never presented with an argument about what the nature of that structural flaw may be; though that is something that might not have been a very good idea to do in 1950s America. Anyhow, that is what I mean when I say that we are not given a postmodernist critique. That's fine, stories don't have to have all the answers----nor can they.

The story certainly does not even attempt to present a way out, a long-term solution to the ongoing danger. There is no plan that if discussed which might keep anything like the Destruction from ever happening again. That is what I mean when I say that The Long Tomorrow does not present us with a postmodernist thesis. But that's okay. Stories don't always have to have solutions.

Thank you for reading.

Go to part three.


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