My rating: 4 of 5 stars
By all accounts I've read, Brackett's 1955 novel is the first, post-nuclear holocaust novel written in the U.S. It takes place around a century after what survivors call "The Destruction." Cities across the globe were bomb targets and they now exist as unvisited ruins, demonized as the symbol of the hubris that brought about the attacks. Brackett's brilliant and genuinely creepy innovation --although I guess it's not really an innovation if it is the first book of what is now a well-worked genre -- is to create a society, not unlike mid-19th century America, but where Mennonites control the government, the religion, and the ideology.
Apparently after "The Destruction," they along with the Amish and whatever Shakers and like groups were still around, proved best suited to a life without technology. Their quaint ways are suddenly in great demand, and through means Brackett never fully explains, their simple, fundamentalist faith rules most of the spiritually defeated and technophobic United States, and it has, no surprise, hardened into an ideology that is not above stoning to death those they find threatening or burning to the ground towns that threaten to grow too large or introduce to many innovations. Doesn't seem l like a fair accommodation just for all the great jams and pies they bake, or that cool, pegged furniture.
The New Mennonites are also firm believers in "Spare the rod, spoil the child," a practice that keeps most youth contained but goes against the grain of our young heros, Len Coulter and his cousin Esau. They discover a short band radio that proves the existence of the fabled city of Bartorstown, which they imagine to be a thriving, mid-twentieth century American metropolis. The "long journey" of their title is their flight from home and many years' quest for this technological utopia.
This is SF filtered through Mark Twain and Frank Norris, filled with small town types, entrepreneurs, dangerous townsfolk, and mysterious strangers. And it all works. If many of scenes play out like those of early TV westerns, there's a good reason for that.
For years I thought Leigh Brackett was a man who wrote western screenplays for Howard Hawks, and that there was some other Leigh Brackett who wrote 1940's SF of the planet-hopping, space opera variety, back when Venus as a jungle and Mars a habitable desert. At some point I learned they were not only the same person but a woman. Despite this SF background, her first novel was a hardboiled detective story that caught the eye of Howard Hawks. He brought her to Hollywood to help William Faulkner with the famously troubled and outrageously convoluted script for The Big Sleep. She had both a successful Hollywood career and continued to publish SF. George Lucas hired her to write the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. She died of cancer shortly after turning in the script and their continues to be discussion over whether any of her material was used by Lawrence Kasdan in the final screenplay.
Much of Leigh Brackett remains in print, but the packaging of the anthologies have too much Buck Rogers about them to tempt me. But I did read that she is the "Poetess of the Pulps." I might have to lay aside my prejudices and have a go at something like Enchantress of Venus.
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