A couple months ago, Wired magazine came out with a truly dreadful article on the history of science fiction — one that suggested diversity is new to SF. I wrote my own response to that, and in the comments another blogger suggested the author Leigh Brackett, who wrote in the 1950s but is now largely forgotten. (Thank you!)
I checked the library and found her novel The Long Tomorrow. It was part of an anthology of the best works of the 1950s, and I accidentally started reading it halfway in. And that didn’t spoil it one little bit. On the contrary — it heightened the suspense, because I knew where the characters were headed, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what would happen when they got there.
It’s an amazing postapocalyptic novel set in a rural New Mennonite town. In the novel’s history, nuclear war took out all the cities, which in turn demolished our technology. Mennonites survived, because they only used technology they could make themselves. And New Mennonites, and others, copied their culture because it made practical sense. This is a well-thought-out scenario, and the New Mennonite communities and surrounding countryside are richly drawn. Brackett really takes her time to let you get to know the people.
The people in this world are terrified that nuclear war might return, and this fear has extended to technology and cities. They’ve built a cultural narrative that says the cities were destroyed because God didn’t like them, and they punish anyone who might remotely appear to be bringing them back with stonings and fire.
And then, of course, the main character and his friend, Len and Esau, find ancient technology and go looking for a fabled city. They are two teenage boys brought up in a strict Biblical tradition who now question their community, but for slightly different reasons.
The story of Len and Esau is a coming-of-age tale, a story about growing up, a story about discovering and understanding the world they live in, and an exploration of a complicated moral problem.
I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, but this one stands out because of its depth and breadth, the strong characterization, and the way it makes you think. It’s one of those books that will stick with me for years.
Off to see what else she’s written . . .
P.S. Here’s a link to a more in-depth but more spoilery review by author Nicola Griffith. She points out the limitations in a novel that’s a product of the age, but all in all likes it even more than me.