The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett; First Edition: Doubleday, 1955.
Cover art Irv Docktor. (Click to enlarge)
The Long Tomorrow
by Leigh Brackett
Doubleday (222 pages, $2.95, hardcover, 1955)
Cover art Irv Docktor
This novel, first of all, is one of a handful of highly regarded 1950s novels that deal with the aftermath of nuclear war, a theme very much of concern in that post-World War II era. Others include, of course, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz; John Wyndham’s Re-Birth aka The Chrysalids; Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, not to mention analogous novels about life after pandemic (George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides) or alien invasion (John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes/Out of the Deeps), and so on.
Second of all, this novel is by a writer otherwise not known for serious science fiction; Brackett wrote some detective novels and did some notable film work (see for details SFE), but she was known in the SF field for a large body of “planetary romances” in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mode, tales of sword-and-sorcery and romance on Mars or equivalent worlds. (Several volumes of these stories have been published by Haffner Press.) The Long Tomorrow, in contrast, is a sober post-apocalypse novel about rural survivors of nuclear war, a couple generations on, and how they deal with that legacy.
The novel was a Hugo finalist in 1956 (Heinlein’s Double Star won). If it were published today, it would be classified as YA, young adult, since the protagonist, as the story begins, is 14 years old; even though the themes of the book are about the most adult conceivable — the fate of the human race in the face of unavoidable technology.
Two generations after the Disaster (a nuclear war) destroyed the cities and most of technology, two boys in a small Ohio town hear of a place called Bartorstown, a secret government facility somewhere out west, and set off to find it. They experience a clash between progressives and reactionaries in a river trading town, then are taken under the wing of the trader Hostetter, who leads them to their goal: a nuclear-powered scientific lab inside a Rocky Mountain mine, where technicians search for a solution to the threat of atomic bombs. The boy Len rebels and attempts to return home, but is forced to face the reality that nuclear power, or bombs, like fire, once discovered, cannot be disappeared; they must be managed and controlled.
This is a sophisticated treatment of the notion that technology must be renounced lest it (again) destroy the world. The characters are complex and the situations never one-sided; we see the points of view of those who revere the past, those who fear its return, and those who struggle with the inescapable responsibility to deal with the consequences of technology that can’t be simply dismissed or forgotten.
The Long Tomorrow, Ballantine Dec. 1974 edition, cover by Darrell K. Sweet (Click to enlarge.)
Summary, Quotes, and [[ Comments ]]
The novel is divided into three “Books.” Page references are to the 1974 Ballantine edition shown above.
In this Book cousins Len Colton and Esau Colton hear, at a Preaching event where a man is stoned to death, of Bartorstown; they hear radio signals from it; and they discover reasons for fleeing their small Ohio town in search of it.
- Chapter 1: The story is set in the town of Piper’s Run, in a future Ohio, a couple generations after the Disaster has destroyed the cities and the technology that supported them. The protagonist is Len Colter, 14 years old, and co-protagonist is his cousin Esau, 15; they are New Mennonites, derived from the Old Mennonites and the Amish, who proved to be the most resilient groups after civilization fell, since they’d already disavowed technology. Len lives on his father’s farm.
- Their dress, p4m: “He wore homespun trousers and sturdy hand-pegged boots, covered thick in dust, and a shirt of coarse-loomed cotton with a narrow neckband and no collar. His hair was a light brown, cut off square above the should and again above the eyes, and on his head he wore a brown flat-crowned hat with a wide brim.”
- [[ This is an interesting point about how groups like the Amish survived the aftermath of nuclear war better than everyone else; it’s an example of how groups we might think in our modern era have not adapted to the modern world, might yet keep the race going in the advent of a global catastrophe that wipes all the rest of us urban softies out. According to Gary K. Wolfe’s notes in his Library of America volume show below, this notion was Brackett’s inspiration for the novel. ]]
- Len and Esau are at the Canfield Fair, a once-a-year event, and as the story opens they are assessing a temptation: “They fall down on the ground and scream and roll.” “Women, too.” (At this point we’re not sure what they’re talking about.) They decide they’ll go that night.
- They reflect on what the past was like, about things Gran (Len’s grandmother) talks about: cars, even flying. But these days you need to be careful what you say. Len’s Pa warns them, in part about those other people the boys are tempted to visit, p8.6: “A man’s religion, his sect, is his own affair. But those people have no religion or sect. They’re a mob, with a mob’s fear and cruelty, and with half-crazy, cunning men stirring them up against others.” Looking for their trader friend Mr. Hostetter, they find him arguing with an unfamiliar man, William Soames.
- Ch 2, That night the boys sneak away from the fair and hitch a ride to a Preaching, where a man rails about strange gods, about blasphemies — the crowd moans — about how people were lustful for luxuries, how they forgot God, and how they were cleansed — the fires that burned the cities. But Satan is still here, luring people! They must be vigilant; if there is evil among them, it must be cast out. Beware the mark of Bartorstown!
- And so a boy in the crowd stands up and says “I accuse him!” and points at William Soames. They frenzied crowd turns on Soames, stripping off his clothes, driving him toward the river, and stoning him to death. Len and Esau watch in horror and then flee — Hostetter is there and rescues them, though he fetches something from Soames’ wagon before they leave. Why did the crowd do that? Hotstetter: “Because they’re afraid, of yesterday, of tomorrow.” They return to the fair, tell Len’s Pa what happened. Hostetter explains how he warned Soames, a trader from Virginia, about the local fanatics.
- Ch 3, Three weeks later, Len listens as Gran sits and remembers how the cities were wonderful, how she had a red dress. Now people are afraid of the cities being brought back. Has she heard of Bartorstown? Yes: it was something the government built, way out west, in secret. Were the cities so bad? She talks about Christmas, about Teevee, about chocolate rabbits at Easter —
- But Pa interrupts; he challenges her: did the cities help? She should be grateful for what she has now. Pa becomes angry, takes Len to the barn. Len asks is Bartorstown real? Pa says he was beaten for asking such questions. All the things that Gran talked about depended on the cities, and now they’re gone. Not just sinful, useless. The cities will never return, not in their lifetimes. He warns Len about Esau, who can be headstrong. They pray. Then Len wanders out into the woods… and hears a strange sound. And finds Esau.
- Ch 4, Esau has a small wooden box with strange knobs and a coil — it’s a radio! He stole it from Soames’ box that Hostetter rescued. Maybe they can use it to hear Bartorstown? They twist the knobs but hear only crackle and hiss. (Apparently it’s battery operated.) Esau wonders if they can find a book to explain how the radio works. Esau hides it in the knoll of a tree.
- Days pass. Len attends school from daybreak ‘til noon, learning sums and Bible stories. Knowing about the radio makes him see the world in new ways:
Whether it was the stimulus of the radio, of simply that he was growing up, or both, he saw everything about him in a new way, as though he had managed to get a little distance off so that his sight wasn’t blurred by being so close. He was too busy and too tired. But now and then he would see Gran sitting by the fire, knitting with her old, old unsteady hands, and he would think how long she had been alive and all she had seen, and he would feel sorry for her because she was old and Baby Esther, a minute copy of Ma in her tiny cap and apron and full skirts, was young and just beginning.” (p45)
- Then one morning he arrives at school and finds the teacher Mr. Nordholt and several other town leaders facing the class. The teacher is angry: someone has stolen three books, pre-Destruction books, from his home. He asks every child in class if they have them; everyone answers no. (Presumably Esau is too old for school; he’s not there.) Len honestly answers no, but suspects he knows what happened. And so after school he goes to the tree, and the three books are there: about physics, about radioactivity, and a history of the US.
- Ch 5, Later, Esau is frustrated by the books; they don’t tell him anything about getting the radio to work, they’re too technical. Len has the bright idea that maybe the people who use the radio only do so at night… ? But work on the farm keeps him busy for days, with no chance to sneak out at night, until Len contrives one. Sure enough — they hear voices! Fragments of conversations, p56: “Sherman wants to know if you’ve heard from Byers. He hasn’t con—”
- Ch 6, June. Hostetter arrives on his wagon for the town strawberry festival. Esau is itchy to leave — he wants to run away and find Bartorstown and thinks Hostetter know about it. Len is tempted, but can’t bring himself to run away from his family. On the third day, as Hostetter is ready to leave, those town leaders arrive at the farm and confront Len and Esau. Do they have a radio? The books? They admit they do, and take the others to the tree. Uncle David (Esau’s father) smashes the radio on the ground. Defiantly, Esau says he’ll find Bartorstown. The men take their sons to the barn; Esau is whipped until he pleads “I repent.” Len tries to explain to his father, “I want to learn, I want to know!” Pa tells him he’ll be purged of his pride. Len thinks that he won’t, that he’ll find all those things outside the world of Piper’s Run. And realizes his childhood has ended.
- Ch 7, The boys are taken to see the town leaders for a hearing. They are told to read their Bibles, and they are to be “birched” Saturday morning. Pa wonders why Len is such trouble when older son James has never been a worry. Gran talks back, p71: “You’re a fool and a coward, Elijah. That’s what you all are, fools and cowards, and the boy is worth the lot of you! Go ahead and break his spirit if you can, but I hope you never do. I hope you never teach him to be afraid of knowing the truth.” Len whispers his plan to Esau. That night he climbs out of the house. Esau meets him, and they flee town. They plan to head downriver, to the Ohio.
The Long Tomorrow, Phoenix Pick 2011 edition, cover unidentified (Click to enlarge.)
In this Book the boys live for a year in a river trading town, where a clash between an ambitious warehouseman and traditionalist judge leads to the destruction of the town and the boys’ rescue by the trader, Hostetter. Hostetter leads them west across the prairies to the Rocky Mountains, where Bartorstown lies hidden in plain sight.
- Ch 8, About a year later, the boys have come to a town called Refuge, bigger, louder, noisier than their home, with steam engines. They have jobs, and room with Mr. Taylor, a judge, who has a yellow-haired daughter Amity. People here are Kellerites, (“after James P. Keller, who founded the sect” p79). Across the river is a smaller town, Shadwell.
- One day Mr. Taylor summons Len. He has lots of books, of which Len has read many. (While Mrs. Taylor is, Len thinks, one of the “incurious ones”, 82.3) Len has a job with Mike Dulinsky, who has four warehouses and wants to build a fifth. But the town is already as big as the 30th amendment allows: it prohibits no town of more than 1000 people or 200 buildings per square mile. Taylor insists it’s necessary to avoid the crowd and filth of the old cities, and gives Len an ultimatum: if Len keeps working for Dulinsky, he’ll no longer be welcome in this house. And he suggests that if Len gives up this job, he can go into training as a lawyer, stay here, maybe marry Amity… But as Len leaves, he sees Esau and Amity kissing outside.
- Ch 9, Len confronts Amity; they bicker and she flees. Angrily, Len packs to leave, argues and fights with Esau until Mr. Taylor throws them both out. In town they find Dulinsky on the dock, who urges them to stay. They hang out with the traders, and Len hears a whisper from a dark barn — is it Hostetter? — warning him to get out, there’ll be a bath of fire here.
- Ch 10, Construction begins on the new warehouse. Len wonders if Hostetter has abandoned them. He finds a reason to go across the river to Shadwell, where the locals there resent how big Dulinsky’s business is getting, and Len gets roughed up.
- Ch 11, There’s a rally in support of Dulinsky in the town square. Dulinsky speaks, railing against the New Mennonites for stifling progress, p111:
No danger menaces us now. Why should we continue to live in the shadow of a fear for which there is no longer any cause? I’ll tell you why! It’s because the new Mennonites climbed into the saddle and have hung onto the government ever since. They don’t like growth, they don’t like change.
- Challenged by Judge Taylor, Dulinksy goes on: “I’ll admit that I’m an unbeliever. I’m an unbeliever in poverty, in hunger, in misery. I don’t know anybody who does believe in those things, except for the New Ishmaelites…”
- He spars with Mr. Taylor, who vaguely threatens him. Boats from Shadwell approach; Dulinsky eggs them on until the flee. But the traders, sensing what’s about to happen, pack their gear and move out.
- Ch 12, Next day Taylor visits Duslinky’s warehouse, with one last warning: If he doesn’t desist, he will experience the Lord’s will. Len perceives that Taylor is honestly scared — afraid if the cities come back, the fire will return too. Len and Esau realize they better flee. Dust from the north signals a steady march of farmers, singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Dulsinky confronts them — and is casually shot down. The farmers rampage through town.
- Ch 13, Fire burns the warehouses and more. Several farmers threaten Len, ready to hang him, until Hostetter appears — finally! — and intervenes, helping Len and Esau escape onto a barge. They’re getting what they wanted, he tells them: they’re on their war to Bartorstown!
- Ch 14, Len lies awake on the barge that night. He asks Hostetter why he couldn’t have helped, prevented what happened. How? Hostetter suggests the townspeople were right in a way; they’re comfortable and happy; who are they, Hostetter or Len, to tell them they need to change? He reports that he had to get permission to talk to him and Esau about Bartorstown, where the law is Hands Off, and warns Len that the real Bartorstown will be nothing like what he’s dreamt up in his head. And Amity is expecting Esau’s child.
- Ch 15, Boats from town pursue the barge. Hostetter uses the radio (hidden below decks) to call someone named Rosen and make a plan to evade the pursuers. Len and Esau go to work shoveling coal into the steam engine to increase their speed; then Len sleeps.
- Ch 16, They go through a canal, and hide the barge to avoid the pursuers. Hostetter mentions how he left Bartorstown 30 years ago, and really has just been a trader since then. It was originally a secret facility with a few dozen specialists [[ much like the secret base in Heinlein’s Sixth Column ]] who were trying to find an answer — one they still haven’t found. The barge eventually turns north into the Mississippi river, then into the Missouri; they’re headed west to the Rockies, and will take a month
- Ch 17, The river passes through farmland and prairie and in Platte they are met by wagons. And old man greats them, and eyes Len and Esau: “So these are your boys” and Hostetter gets embarrassed — we realize now that he’s been watching over the boys for years, with a paternal interest. (He mentions somewhere that he’s had no family, because he’s always the traveling trader.) They set off in the wagons, through grass. With the Rockies in sight, they’re met by a band of New Ishmaelites…
- Ch 18, These are primitive nomads who preach and demand payment in gunpowder. The wagons head on into the hills, come to a gate, and wait — scanners are checking them out. Then up switchbacks. Hostetter cautions Len to be patient, and Len senses that H as conflicted feelings about the place. They go through a pass, and descend to a small mining town, Fall Creek. Where is Bartorstown? Hidden in plain sight.
American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956, edited by Gary K. Wolfe. The Library of America, 2012, jacket illustration Richard M. Powers (Click to enlarge.)
In this Book the boys settle in to the mining town Fall Creek, and then are shown Bartorstown: an underground nuclear-powered pre-Disaster government facility where a huge computer is still being used to try to find a shield against the threat of nuclear bombs. Sensing no solution will ever be found, Len and his bride flee, trying to return to Ohio, before Hostetter catches up with them and lets Len realizes he has a responsibility to work for a better future.
- Ch 19, As they approach the town Esau gets angry, thinking they’ve been tricked. H explains they have to live in the world. There’s a dam, rails; it’s a mining town, open to everyone. Wepplo, one of the wagon masters, takes them to his home, where his granddaughter Joan immediately takes to Len. Then the three newcomers are taken to Sherman’s house. (Sherman was mentioned in the brief radio transmission the boys heard.) Sherman questions the boys: why did they come? Len briefly explains. So he thought Bartorstown would be like one of the old cities? Len supposes so. Hostetter tells the boys they’ve been done a big favor, and they’ll understand soon enough. But they are sworn to secrecy, and are not to try to leave town — or they’ll be shot.
- Ch 20, They have dinner at the Wepplos, where one of the senior scientists, Gutierrez, gets drunk. Hostetter and Len sleep in the bachelor’s shack. In the morning, at Sherman’s behest, a quick wedding is conducted for Esau and Amity. Then Len and Esau are brought before Sherman and several other men, and again are asked questions; now they tell the entire story, from them hearing the name Bartorstown, the finding of the radio, and so on. It’s revealed that there are microphones in the table, and the entire town has now heard their story — in part to remind the townsfolk what it’s still like out there; p189.2 “It shows that eighty years of the most rigid control hasn’t been able to stamp out the art of independent thinking.” The boys need re-education — but for now, let’s go to Bartorstown.
- Ch 21, The boys are led into to a rough mine tunnel, pass through a locked gate, and then into a finished tunnel with lights; they go through a metal door, meet a young man named Jones, and a big chamber of equipment, even a Teevee monitor! There are many more rooms, and they’re told that it was built to be self-supporting. The bottom of three levels holds the power plant; they hear the sound of steam but wonder about the power source? When told it’s uranium, the boys react with visceral fear, p197:
A voice screamed in Len’s ears, the voice of the preaching man, standing on the edge of his wagon with the sparks flying past him on the night wind — They have loosed the sacred fire which only I, the Lord Jehovah, should dare to touch — and God said —Let them be cleansed of their sin—
- And Esau runs: “But it’ll burn me. It’ll burn me inside, and my blood will turn white and my bones will rot and I’ll die.”
- Hostetter reassures them; it’s perfectly safe. (Of course the boys are conflating nuclear power and nuclear bombs.) This reactor was here before the Disaster, and “it wasn’t ours to destroy.” There may well be others left in the world. Even if they were destroyed, knowledge of atoms would be rediscovered. You can’t eliminate all the brains in the world. Then what is the alternative? “The way of reason.”
- Ch 22, Now the purpose can be revealed. In the middle level is a gallery of photos of Hiroshima, of what the bomb did, so they always remember. And the answer? A defense, p203: “Not the imperfect defense of radar nets… but something far more basic and all-embracing, a totally new concept. A field-type force…” Then they’re shown a huge computer, nicknamed Clementine, with memory banks, an electronic brain. Len is very troubled by all this, afraid everything bad will come back. It’s just finished a three-year project that came up empty. Gutierrez is there, wondering, could the machine have made a mistake?
- Ch 23, As they walk back to town Hostetter reassures them they can’t be hurt by the reactor, and admits that the people here have belief too: “We’re fanatics too, Len. We have to be, or we’d drift away… ” Len joins Joan, who’s overheard those last remarks. She’s remarkably cynical about the whole project, and frustrated she can never leave town. She’s not a fanatic, she insists.
- Ch 24, Sherman assigns them work — in the steam plant, right next to the reactor. Life settles into a routine, yet Len remains haunted by thoughts of evil. And he’s troubled by Joan.
- Ch 25, The New Ishmaelites come over the pass to the village. Joan takes Len to her room, and puts on… a skimpy red dress. She says she knows a way out if he wants. Meanwhile, does he know about Solution Zero?
- Ch 26, Winter comes. Len has come to love Joan, but she wants to leave town, and he’s forbidden to. She tells him about Solution Zero: the prospect that no solution will be found. Len goes to Hostetter, who admits it’s possible; that’s how research is done. This is why Gutierrez, whose scheme failed, keeps getting drunk.
- Ch 27, Snow comes. The machine has been overhauled and the boys go to see it work. Gutierrez is there, insisting the machine made a mistake, and insists his calculations be run again. OK, the operator does — and still there’s no solution. Enraged, Gutierrez pulls stones out of pockets and hurls them at the machine, until he’s subdued. Len is shocked and dismayed — is there really no answer? So he goes to Joan.
- Ch 28, Months pass; Amity has Esau’s child. Len marries Joan, and they get their own little house. Then the Ishmaelites come again, and as they leave, Joan leads Len through the pass to follow them, a spring storm covering their tracks.
- Ch 29, They trudge on as days turn into weeks. Len feels they’ve done their penance. He feels the need to get back, to find certainty, p252:
Safe in the fields and the seasons, safe in the not-thinking, not-wanting. A contented mind and a thankful heart. Pa said those were the greatest blessings. He was right. Piper’s Run is where I lost them. Piper’s Run is where I will find them again.
- They join a band of hunters, then realize they’re being followed by someone in a wagon. They stay in a town with traders for several days, as Len obsesses over what choice to make, with finding his own truth. Then one evening he turns and finds Hostetter sitting next to him.
- Ch 30, Hostetter says nothing; they sit and listen to the preaching. Everything swirls around in Len’s mind, as he ponders all the options — e.g. he could betray Hostetter to the crowd, to die like Soames; or Hostetter could betray him. His mind lands on this insight:
I know now what lies across the land, the slow and heavy weight. They call it faith, but it is not faith. It is fear. The people have clapped a shelter over their heads, a necessity of ignorance, a passion of retreat, and they have called it God, and worshiped it. And it is as false as any Moloch. So false that men like Soames, men like Dulinsky , men like Esau and myself will overthrow it. And it will betray its worshipers, leaving them defenseless in the face of a tomorrow that will surely come. It may be a slow coming, and a long one, but come it will, and all their desperation will not stop it. Nothing will stop it.” (p259-260)
- Len realizes he can’t go back home. He and Hostetter realize neither one will betray the other to the crowd. Len admits, “I guess it makes better sense to try and chain the devil up than to try keeping the whole land tied down in the hopes he won’t notice it again.” p260. So he guesses Hostetter will have to let him go back. Hostetter reveals it wasn’t entirely his decision — two men with rifles wait in the shadows, in case. And so they ready to return. Joan says, bitterly, “It’s a hideous world, I hate it.” And Hostetter replies, “No, not hideous, just imperfect. But that’s nothing new.”
First the quibbles.
- There are a few implausible assumptions here. It’s only been two generations since the Disaster; where are all the roads? Or ruined cityscapes for that matter? The era is portrayed as if they had gone back in time 500 years, not survived less than 100 after a nuclear war.
- That aside, the novel is dated, inevitably, by its depiction of the cavernous computer (full of vacuum tubes, presumably) and for that matter the way in which Gutierrez’ theory, apparently in the form of equations that it took him three years to develop, is tested by the computer and found insoluble in just a few moments. What else has the computer been doing all this time? Hasn’t more than one person been searching for the “answer”?
- Wouldn’t Bartorstown know, via radio, if other groups of technical survivors existed somewhere in the world?
- It’s hard to believe at the end that Len and Joan would make it so far, on foot down the mountains and across a prairie with almost no supplies, before Hostetter finds them.
Then the strengths.
- One way in which this novel is extraordinary is that the characters, some of them at least, are remarkably complex. Len is torn between wanting freedom, wanting the adventure of searching for a secret place, while yearning for some kind of peace and certainty, ready several times to return to his childhood hometown. Hostetter especially is an odd duck, a willing exile from Bartorstown for 30 years, working as a trader (really, he assures the boys), on the one hand defending the mission of Bartorstown, on the other in some sense deeply hating the place. And in place of his own family he’s maintained, for some years, a watchful paternal eye over Len and Esau. And Mr. Taylor is at once a wise defender of the status quo, against the evils of the past, yet capable of rallying violence that burns the town down, just so it doesn’t turn into a city.
- The second way this is extraordinary is because Brackett doesn’t let any particular side be completely right. As much as the reader of a science fiction novel like this presumably wants to see past glories restored, and small town bigots and religious zealots defeated, we are reminded that those latter people have their points, that they have a right to determine their own futures, and who are they —Bartorstown, Hostetter — to tell them any differently?
- The bottom line is the recognition that technology, whether nuclear power, nuclear bombs, gunpowder, or fire, once discovered, can’t be eliminated; if suppressed, it will only be rediscovered, and the problems in dealing with its consequences will only reappear. That is humanity’s fate, and responsibility.
Mark R. Kelly’s last review for us was of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes / Out of the Deeps. Mark wrote short fiction reviews for Locus Magazine from 1987 to 2001, and is the founder of the Locus Online website, for which he won a Hugo Award in 2002. He established the Science Fiction Awards Database at sfadb.com. He is a retired aerospace software engineer who lived for decades in Southern California before moving to the Bay Area in 2015. Find more of his thoughts at Views from Crestmont Drive, which has this index of Black Gate reviews posted so far.