I buy Gollancz’s SF Masterworks editions because I trust their editors to provide me with the best sf from the past century. I don’t expect their reprints to be classics all the time, but I do expect a decent read. Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow was a disappointment, but had a whumph in its tail.
It was published in 1955, in the same year as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which it fairly closely resembles. It’s a story of life in North America after the Bomb (not again …. I would so like to read a sf novel of life in any other part of the world after the Bomb: all suggestions welcome), in which religious tyranny has overtaken all civilisation within two generations. Oddly, people who were children during the time of the Bomb can remember their pre-Bomb lifestyles, but their children and grandchildren have been so completely indoctrinated as to believe all such memories are sinful and subversively dangerous. The indoctrination has been carried out by religious cults, led by bullying men with loud voices. I do not, cannot, believe this: all magazines, books, posters, art, photographs, visual references, let alone the technology to hear music and see TV and film, completely gone in two generations? Twenty, maybe, but not two. My belief failed to be suspended.
The Long Tomorrow is a futuristic western, in that the protagonists want desperately to escape their present tyranny and travel west to a far-off land of freedom. They have to make their way alone with no help except some mysterious guardian outlaw types, and they move cautiously through frontier towns that actively repress all attempts at community growth or trade. Violence is everywhere. Women are barely even noticeable, being crushed under the restrictions of the religious and civic tyrannies. They are either crushed slaves in bonnets (what is it that attracts religious cults in the USA to Little House on the Prairie fashions?), or pouting strumpets mad keen for sex-and-marriage (because tyrannies always insist on marriage). This is a pioneer variant of Joanna Russ’s concept of intergalactic suburbia, in which advances are made in all areas of human life and technology except where women are concerned, because their place is in the 1950s. There is one female character with agency, seen briefly for plot purposes, but she is mad, starving, dresses in rags and has clearly been exiled for having a mind of her own.
The sf elements are limited to the post-apocalyptic setting, and to the importance of rescuing lost technologies as a metaphor for regaining civilisation. Except: when we reach the end of the novel, and the protagonists finally reach their goal, Brackett drops an idea on us that is truly magnificent in its implications, and finally shows why this novel belongs in the sf canon. Her philosophical paradox that denies and rewrites everything that we’ve read up to now, and for that alone the novel is worth reading. All that has gone before is pretty second-rate stuff. I had been thinking that the novel’s only selling point was a cynical piggyback on the fact that Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. The Long Tomorrow is one of her earliest novels, and is not great, but has a tremendous central concept. For that alone it’s worth reading.