Humanity’s curiosity and invention cannot be repressed, but the attractions of the pastoral lifestyle and the desire to avoid the complications of technological progress cannot be entirely denied, however ultimately misguided.
The book begins in Pymatuning, 100 years after a nuclear war has destroyed every city on earth. In Brackett’s world, it’s the Amish and Mennonites who survive the apocalypse. One day, a precocious boy, Len, and his cousin, Esau, come across a radio, a forbidden piece of technology that may have come from the last remaining city. The object kicks off the adventure as Len and Esau set out into the territories in search of the truth.
One possible definition of science fiction is that SF is about the potential effects of technology on humanity and the human environment. The potential of technology can create the “sense of wonder” that SF readers are often looking for, but technology can also be seen as a potential danger. Out of hand or out of our control, technology can become the source of our destruction—thus the cautionary dystopias of nuclear apocalypse and climate change that appear alongside more hopeful stories of space exploration and other wonders of the future.
Leigh Brackett plays with this dichotomy masterfully in The Long Tomorrow (1955), the story of two teenage cousins brought up in Piper’s Run—a community of “New Mennonites” in Ohio eighty years after a nuclear war destroyed most U.S. cities. (The details of the war itself are not presented, but apparently the U.S. “won”, for whatever it’s worth.) In the aftermath of the Destruction, as the nuclear devastation has come to be known, fundamentalist religious groups have gained political power, enforcing, with popular support, an anti-technological society supported by the Thirtieth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the growth of any town’s population beyond one thousand people, or the number of buildings beyond two hundred per square mile.
“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.”
The cultural mores of the Amish and the Mennonites dominate America, and more violent anti-technology sects threaten death by stoning for anyone caught with illegal technology—“the terror brought the great boiling up of faith that birthed new sects and strengthened the old ones.”
It is the witnessing of the murder by stoning of a man accused of being from Bartorstown—a rumored stronghold of prewar technology somewhere in the West—that precipitates the flight of Len Colter and his cousin Esau from the reasonably comfortable but never-changing rural life of their home town of Piper’s Run. Esau finds a radio among the possessions of the dead man, verifying the existence of the banned technology for which he was killed. The two boys are fascinated by the artifact, which works, though they don’t know how to use it—a sign that there is something greater beyond their small-town world. After being caught with the radio and beaten by their fathers, the cousins determine to run away and find Bartorstown. Esau’s motivation is utilitarian—he’s drawn to the possibilities of a more interesting life, with no regrets or religious scruples—but Len, from whose perspective the novel is related, is more philosophical and conflicted, and it is through him that the conflict between the two ways of life plays out. When asked by his father why he kept the radio, and some stolen ancient books he hoped would help him understand its workings, his response is, “Because I couldn’t help it. I want to learn, I want to know!” Technology destroyed the cities, so the conservative religious response was to prevent the cities and their technological way of life from coming back, but is the repression of human knowledge desirable, or even possible, despite its destructive potential?
This story told me that humans are eternally driven toward what they don’t have and what they can’t see, something “better.” It questions what “better” really is, does a better place really exist or is this it? It smacks you in the face with the reality that this is it, and it is no better or worse than we decide it should be. It speaks against judgment against fellow humans. The poor man on the corner is not so different than the man in his mansion, so why judge. At our core don’t most of us have a lot of the same fears and desires?
About the Author
Leigh Douglass Brackett
(December 7, 1915 – March 18, 1978)
US scriptwriter and author, for most of her career deeply involved in the writing of fantasy and sf, for which she perhaps remains best known, though her detective novels and her 16 film and television scenarios have been justly praised. Her film work includes screenplays for The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and The Long Goodbye (1973); and for Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1958), novelizing her own script as Rio Bravo (1959). Hawks had been impressed by her first novel, the detective thriller No Good from a Corpse (1944), and famously (as a Hollywood tale puts it) told his secretary to locate “this guy Brackett” (Hawks, noted for his filming competent women coping with slightly less competent men, was undismayed when Brackett turned out to be female). Her last film work, a draft scenario for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), for which she posthumously received a 1981 Hugo, was not typical of her efforts in this field; the original script was published as The Empire Strikes Back (1978; exp vt The Empire Strikes Back: The Complete, Fully Illustrated Script 1999) with Larry Kasdan. None of her television work is in the fields of the fantastic. In 1946 she married Edmond Hamilton, who had been active as an sf writer from the 1920s; her influence may have affected his writing, which improved markedly in the late 1940s.