This is an essay that was published in 2012 by the Library of America as part of their American Science Fiction: Classic Novels of the 1950s series (edited by Gary Wolfe). The other links on that page—an audio interview with Brackett, essays on other writers by people like Tim Powers, Michael Dirda, and Connie Willis, and more—are well worth following.

I read The Long Tomorrow for the first time in 2005. Five pages in, I wondered why I’d never heard of this novel. Twenty pages later, I was wondering why it wasn’t universally acknowledged as the first Great American SF Novel.

The opening of The Long Tomorrow reads like a King James Bible for the American myth: rhythmic, certain, implacable. It says: This is how it was. It leaves no room for dissent. Brackett sets up her major theme in the first sentence: “Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin.” The sin is knowledge, and with that one sentence we’re right there with fourteen year-old Len, seeing for the first time the limit of his experience, standing on the edge, about to take the step that will lead to his loss of Eden.

Brackett’s themes are those of the Bildungsroman: loss of innocence, change, and the journey from safety into the unknown in pursuit of knowledge. But because her ambition was enormous, her setting is that of a post-nuclear Ruined Earth. She aimed for no less than the first serious novel of character set in an sfnal landscape.

In mid-century North America, I doubt there was anyone better equipped for the challenge.

Before Brackett wrote The Long Tomorrow (published in 1955), she was expert in two disparate traditions: swashbuckling planetary romance (for the sf pulps) and hard-boiled crime narrative (a novel, and several screenplays, e.g. The Big Sleep). In 1949 she tried to mix aspects of these previously immiscible traditions. She added the grit, realism, and noirish interiority of hard-boiled fiction to the exoticism of an elegiac Mars dreaming of long-forgotten technology.

The result was The Sword of Rhiannon, a smooth planetary romance startlingly cabled with gristle. But Rhiannon fails as literature: the hero doesn’t grow and change. So Brackett tried again, and this time she chose a landscape that Huck Finn might have recognised. (Though peopled, it must be noted, entirely by white characters—with one exception.)

She flung herself into territory both old and strange. Into a base composed of tropes familiar to any reader of the Great American Novel—the young hero seeking his place in the world, a farmland America of rich dirt and strong faith—she poured a healthy dose of sfnal anti-anti-intellectualism, and, perhaps inevitably, the refusal of the hero’s expected return—older, wiser, and reconciled to his place in society—to his beginnings.

The first third of the novel is undeniably brilliant. Len Colter is part of his world, steeped in it, thinking in the same rhythm with the same vocabulary as his community. By the simple expedient of constitutional prohibition against cities and deeply faithful leadership, Brackett shows the reader the clear connection between religion and the maintenance of cultural taboo. We see how technology has become taboo. We are introduced to the notion of a possibly mythical pariah elite of Bartorstown—who, naturally, are technologists. We watch the inevitable fall from grace of Len and his friend Esau, and the beginning of the long, long journey to self-understanding.

Brackett, like Len, is a product of her age. While the religion is beautifully handled—it is shown in a variety of sects, and held with varying depth of feeling—it is entirely Christian, white, and run by and for men. She shows men, though not women, struggling to be good people inside their constraints.

She also handles the antagonism of science and religion honestly. She melds the classic noir cri de coeur, Why me?, with Len’s sfnal anti-anti-intellectual crisis: “Oh God, you make the ones like Brother James who never question, and you make the ones like Esau who never believe, and why do you have to make the in-between ones like me?” In an even more impressive feat, she uses what would be a literary novel’s denouement, Len’s realisation that faith is just another word for fear, to disguise a classic sfnal move: a vertiginous focus pull in which he understands that he is nothing, a speck, immaterial to continuing existence of the world.

It’s fascinating to watch Brackett lay out her chainsaws and clubs and flaming torches and add them, one by one, to the performance. Every now and again she falters—in the third section, when she has the most in the air, her voice veers into an unconvincing present-tense stream-of-consciousness, her characters lose focus, and this reader at least doubts the viability of Bartorstown’s sfnal mission—but then she drives a brilliant spike through the confusion and pins us to the here and now. I defy you to get through the moment of Joan walking through that doorway in her red dress and not be right there inside Len’s skin, feeling him swallow and his world turn, just as it did on page one.

In the 1950s, this book must have turned its readers inside out like a sock. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that this novel was a formative influence on the young Carl Sagan, the genesis of his notion that spacefaring nations would be rare because they would tend towards destruction before they escaped the gravity of their planet.

In the twenty-first century, we have an inkling that this may not be true. Perhaps we have writers like Leigh Brackett to thank.