The Tomorrow File, by Lawrence Sanders
September, 1976 Berkley Medallion
was a very prolific and very popular author, but it seems this mid-1970s foray into Future Shock
-inspired science fiction has almost entirely been forgotten. And I wonder if it was even overlooked in its day. I had never heard of the book until recently coming across James Nicoll’s
review (warning: James gives away a lot of the plot in his review, so tread carefully), and to tell the truth if I ever saw “The Tomorrow File
” listed among Sanders’s books I would’ve just assumed it was another crime thriller, along the lines of The Anderson Tapes
While there is a crime vibe to parts of The Tomorrow File, this is certainly more of a sci-fi novel…one that’s set in the far-flung future year of 1998! (Coincidentally, the year Lawrence Sanders died.) This means that Sanders was projecting a future a mere 23 years after the 1975 of the original hardcover edition; the novel opens in January of 1998 and ends in late 1999. In this regard The Tomorrow File comes off as very radical; Sanders here presents an entire society that is completely different from his day. And yet at the same time the novel is that kind of 1970s sci-fi I so love, in that it’s just a wildly progressive projection of the ‘70s itself. In other words, if the ‘70s had never ended The Tomorrow File might be the world that ensued. So Sanders was very wrong in many of his predictions; as James Nicholl noted, one of the biggest misses was the importance of computers…but yet I had to keep reminding myself that the novel was set in 1998. Even in the real world computers and the web and etc hadn’t achieved nearly the ubiquitousness of today in 1998.
Recently I read a great review of Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock
which included the memorable phrase that it was a “deep, hard shot of heroin
” for the science fiction genre, and The Tomorrow File
is evidence of this. In fact, I’m betting Sanders based a minor character, “leukemic dwarf” Hyman R. Lewisohn, on Alvin Toffler himself. Not that Toffler was a foul-mouthed dwarf with a protruding forehead (at least I don’t think he was), but Lewisohn is a Tofflin-type futurist and sociologist who gained prominence in the late 1970s of Sanders’s world and whose ideas have created this strange 1998. And Sanders throws us right into it this world. There’s no scene-setting or world-building; Sanders skillfully using plot and dialog to paint the details. In fact it isn’t until late in the novel that we learn why a lot of stuff is the way it is in this 1998. However, Sanders is guilty at times of “addressing a flock of Rip Van Winkles who had fallen asleep in the mid-seventies,” as the New York Times
What the Times reviewer means is that, even though narrator Nicholas “Nick” Flair “speaks” to us as if we are as familiar with his 1998 as he himself is, sometimes he will slip in background material and setup that would only make sense to someone in the 1970s. And of course this means that these explanations come off like “duh” moments to those of us reading the novel in 2022; what might have seemed fantastical in 1975 is commonplace now. This occasional tendency to “address Rip Van Winkles” sort of ruins the conceit of The Tomorrow File, and honestly I think it would have been solved if Sanders had written the novel in third-person instead of first. That way he would’ve been free to build his world and explain things without resulting to the occasional exposition, sort of how John Brunner did in Stand On Zanzibar (which I’m assuming Sanders read).
Speaking of Brunner, I’ve somehow acquired three paperback editions of Stand On Zanzibar over the years, but I still haven’t read the book. And yet I know it is and always has been considered a landmark of science fiction. It is very strange that The Tomorrow File did not achieve the same status. Because this isn’t a quick sci-fi cash-in; Sanders is fully invested in his tale for 551 pages, creating a fully-realized world complete with new beliefs, a new governmental and societal structure, and new fashions. The back cover of this Berkley paperback edition sports a blurb from The Los Angeles Times, which states that The Tomorrow File “picks up where Aldous Huxley and George Orwell left off.” It took me about a hundred pages of this Future Shock assault to realize that this is exactly what Lawrence Sanders was going for – a 1970s take on Brave New World or 1984, set in the soon-coming future and detailing a horrific world of government overreach and the resulting loss of humanity. A world of rampant drugs, easy sex, and genius-level people who strive for progress at all costs.
So why isn’t The Tomorrow File
considered on the same level today as Huxley or Orwell’s novels? I can think of a few reasons. For one, the novel’s too long. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. If you love reading then there’s nothing as pleasurable as a very long novel that you can lose yourself in, and The Tomorrow File
certainly delivers in that regard. In fact it got to the point that I had a weird echo effect with some of the new lingo Sanders devised here, more on which later. But at 551 pages of small, dense print, Sanders delivers too many plots and subplots, particularly when compared to the more streamlined novels he was inspired by. In fact, Kirkus
clearly had a hard time figuring out what
the main plot of The Tomorrow File
was, though I have my suspicions that the uncredited reviewer didn’t read the entire novel. No surprise there – it wouldn’t be the first reviewer to skim a book.
The novel is just too packed to be considered a classic, to the point that there’s no main plot to hold on to. Three “Books” comrpise the narrative (titled X, Y, and Z), and each have a different plot, with the overall storyline of Nick Flair uniting them. In Book X we’re introduced to Nick and his world, and the plot here concerns his being tasked with running a sting operation on a group of domestic terrorists who are united against this brave new world. In Book Y, Nick learns he was used as a dupe in the sting operation and sets out to get revenge, for no other reason than pride. In Book Z, Nick finds out that he himself is the target of a sting operation…while he tries at the same time to have an affair with the First Lady(?!). In addition to this there are a ton of incidental subplots and characters, from Nick’s frequent visits to his wealthy industrialist father to various science projects Nick helms – among them various bizarre ways to keep that leukemic dwarf Hyman Lewisohn alive, given his importance to the United States.
I feel if Sanders had just made one of these subplots the main thread of The Tomorrow File he might’ve had something along the lines of Orwell. The first book in particular, if elaborated, could’ve resulted in a worthy successor to 1984, given that Nick, an unquestioning member of the ruling class, is brought into the fold of “terrorists” who merely seek independence in this tyrannical world. But Sanders is too caught up in his novel – so caught up, in fact, that it’s contagious – and he barrels on, doling out so many plots and repercussions that he seems to lose control of himself. But then, the world-building is immense here; Sanders takes us into the inner workings of this 1998, in which the United States has now spread internationally, with a hundred countries now “states” (another of Lewisohn’s visionary ideas), and in which scientists rule society. This in particular was pretty uncanny in our post-Covid world, more on which anon.
Before I dive more into the plot, I wanted to note that another issue I had with The Tomorrow File
, and another thing which might’ve impeded its fame in the day, was the narrator. In short, I spent 551 pages with Nick Flair, and never once did I like him. He’s a 28 year-old scientist for the Federal government – the Department of Bliss, one of the many new bureacracies in this 1998. Nick then was born in 1970, though Sanders never outright acknowledges this. I was 24 in 1998, and Nick Flair is unlike any 20-something I ever knew, that’s for sure. He is a super genius, the result of “advanced conditioning” (also referred to as “mental conditioning”) at a young age; Sanders also has a bit of Logan’s Run
here in that this 1998 is mostly run by youth, people under 30 like Nick who have been groomed into geniuses and who strive in all areas for progress, the past be damned. One of the newspeak words Sanders introduces is “obso,” which is used interchangably for someone who is over 30 and for someone who is conservative, at least in the sense of sticking to the old ways.
It must be tough to narrate a long novel through the perspective of an incredibly intelligent young man, but Sanders pulls it off with aplomb. The guy must have been pretty smart himself. We are privy to a host of scientific experiments and sociology experiments, and Nick is always ten steps ahead of everyone else – so Sanders doesn’t just create a world of smart young people, but narrates the novel in the voice of a young man who is smarter than most. This however ultimately creates a disconnect between Nick and the reader, in that it’s very hard to relate to him. He’s so out of touch and “progressed” from even our own era, let alone 1975, that you just can’t feel anything for him, even when his plight worsens in the final quarter of the novel. And speaking of which, Sanders for reasons of the plot undermines Nick’s intelligence, having our narrator not notice stuff that’s very obvious to us readers. For example, and no spoilers I swear, but as mentioned in the third book Nick learns he’s the victim of a sabotage attempt. He discovers that someone has been impersonating him…someone of the same height and build as Nick himself. And then shortly after this discovery, Nick mentions to us via the narrative that he notices a minor character is, you guessed it, the same height and build of himself. Of course we learn at the very end of the novel that this minor character was indeed the “fake Nick” (Sanders doesn’t bluntly state so, but it’s obvious)…and yet Nick never connects these two things himself. So in some cases Nick Flair’s super-genius level must take a backseat to plot contrivances, and this too could’ve been overlooked if the novel had been written in third-person.
And here comes the other reason, the biggest reason of all, why I think The Tomorrow File
never achieved 1984
or Brave New World
status: this is a very
permissive society, even by 1970s standards. Nick Flair is openly bisexual, and the novel has him engaging in frequent sex with his best friend/direct report, plump and “effete” Paul Bumford. Sanders delivers several sequences in which the two men kiss or hop in bed together; there’s a very
explicit scene between them in the final pages of the novel. This must have been quite disconcerting to readers in 1975. Hell, I found it disconcerting in 2022. (Looks like it’s back to Diversity & Inclusion training for me!
) Not only that, but Nick and Paul and most other men in this 1998 are not only bisexual, but wear makeup as well. This too must’ve seemed radical in 1975, let alone the real 1998. We’re certainly making, uh, “progress” in that area, though – have you all seen the current administration’s nomination for the deputy assistant secretary
of the Office of Nuclear Energy? Not only is it yet another
indication of how our nation’s norms have been restored in the past year, but it’s also another indication of how Sanders was so wildly progressive in his predictive future; in this and many other ways, we still
haven’t caught up with The Tomorrow File
Not that we should catch up with it, that is. I don’t know Sanders’s politics, but this novel is definitely aligned with Orwell in that it shows us the face-stomping jackbootery of the Left in full soul-crushing bureacratic effect. Politics are never mentioned in the novel, but Nick and his colleagues are self-proclaimed “progressives,” and they are united against “conservatives.” And as mentioned “conservatives” are obsos, outdated in their thinking and sentiments; one of the many, many sociological initiatives Nick looks into is a way to legally kill off older people, who are too conservative in their beliefs and, just as importantly, don’t produce or consume like younger people do. In this 1998 science and politics have been united, thanks to “the first scientist President,” who radically altered the course of the country in the 1970s, following the direction of Hyman Lewisohn.
Above I mentioned the First Lady, but that’s not the correct title in Sanders’s 1998; we learn that, post-Watergate, the US government was seen as too intrusive and bureacratic, and the slate was wiped clean. Now the President is merely a figurehead, not making any policy decisions, and the real power is “the Chief Director,” who makes all the decisions in the country…lording over an even larger bureacracy than the President did. It’s the wife of the Chief Director, Grace Wingate, that Nick falls in love with late in the novel, leading to one of the more unexpected plot developments. Love is a new concept to Nick, an obso sentiment that he considers himself above. He has a ton of sex with other women, though; sex is as casual as can get in this world (again, the vibe being that it’s the 1970s wildly projected into the future), and Nick sleeps his way through several women in the long course of the novel. But as ever Sanders isn’t too explicit, going for more of a poetic effect…again, in keeping with the overall highfalutin tone of his narrator.
The novel is certainly science fiction, but it’s entirely Earthbound. We learn, only via incidental dialog, that there’s a “permanent moon colony” as well as a new Skylab. And while Sanders overlooks the importance computers would have – though one of the subplots has Nick orchestrating artificial intelligence for “the King Mrk. V” computer system – Sanders does go into more Future Shock territory with a lot of clones and etc. One aspect in which our real world is more “progressivised” than Sanders’s is in gender “fluidity.” Early in the book Nick mentions he is a “natural male,” and to this I assumed he meant as compared to a trans man, etc. But we learn that the differentiator is artificial insemination. Paul Bumford, for example, is a test tube child, as are countless others, though Sanders never tells us if the “clones” he mentions are the same thing as the test tube kids. Meanwhile Nick Flair is “natural” in that he has parents. This leads to a nice but understated scene later in the book where Paul grapples with the relationship between Nick and his father…how there is an instant trust and rapport between them, Paul never having known a father. Ultimately it’s yet another subplot in a book stuffed with them, and works toward the overall theme: this is a society created by humans who no longer possess what was once considered “humanity.”
Sanders is also prescient in that this 1998 has achieved that (un)holy grail of the modern Left: the sexualization of children. Paul’s dad became wealthy due to anatomically-accurate dolls that were used “to teach sex education to four-year olds,” and launched a wildly successful commercial line of them. One of Nick’s many conquests is a “retardate clone” named Millie who lives near Nick’s father in Detroit; she’s 16 years old, and was only 14 when Nick first started sleeping with her. There are no legal issues concerning sex with minors; again, it’s not only indicative of this wildly permissive society, but another instance of how Sanders was able to predict what was coming in the future. Read, if you have the stomach for it, about Kentucky’s Sexy Summer Camp
. For children!
Not to mention recent revelations that activist teachers see themselves more as groomers than as, uh, teachers
, encouraging underaged children to pursue alternate sexual lifestyles and hiding it from parents
Indeed, the overall theme of The Tomorrow File is that progressivism run amok will lead to a literal “slave society.” The titular “Tomorrow File” is a sort of “Christmas list” Nick has put together of things he’d like to research, but must be put on hold until “tomorrow” due to societal or political concerns. In other words, stuff the public isn’t ready for yet. Paul is his idea board, and yet another subplot in the novel is how Paul transforms from an effete and pudgy underling into a rugged man of science who pushes for such extreme progress that even Nick is taken aback. One of the Tomorrow File ideas is the “Ultimate Pleasure” drug, or “UP” as it is soon known, and Nick and Paul will have frequent discussions on what the nature of pleasure is, and how a drug can be introduced that caters to it – again, Sanders has done such incredible world-building here, so fully invested in his characters, that he even goes through menial stuff like how the drug would be packaged and opened. But Paul is the one who ultimately sees the UP as so revelatory that society could be catered around it; in other words, the UP drug wouldn’t be seen as a boon to those who worked harder, but the very basis around which a societal structure could be centered…a ruling class overtop a “slave society,” as Paul eagerly posits.
But what’s missing is Nick’s expected and gradual “slide” into obso thinking. This is why I think the first book, Book X, should have been expanded into the main plot of The Tomorrow File. Not that the plots of the other two books aren’t exciting; indeed, Nick’s masterful sting operation in Book Y to get revenge is one of the highlights of the novel. But the obso domestic terrorist plot in the first book could’ve easily been used as a means to open up this strange world and show how independence is crushed by progressivism. Instead, Nick’s comeuppance in this regard is rather awkwardly handled by the romantic subplot with Grace Wingate, the wife of Chief Director Michael Wingate. It’s just hard to buy, that’s all. But one thing I learned from The Tomorrow File is that it would be next to impossible to have an affair with the First Lady! (But then I can literally only think of one First Lady you’d even want to try to have an affair with…) Indeed this entire subplot is so weird and unwelcomed that I wished Sanders had just jettisoned it, and maybe used it for another novel…I mean that’s a plot that could use its own novel to be expanded upon.
This is one of those novels where I feel like I could ramble on and on, as usual, and still only just scratch the surface. So in that regard it’s like Boy Wonder
. There are just so many characters, so many subplots. And Sanders’s skill is such that I never felt lost; I always remembered who was who, and even the most minor of subplots were compelling enough to keep my attention. I did feel though that there was a bit too much fat at times. Nick eventually helms the Department of Creative Science, yet another bureacratic venture of politicized scientists, and this entails a lot of trips around the country with him giving speeches. There was also random stuff like an overlong trip to a fight club sort of place near Millie’s house, where Nick and the “retardate clone” watched a seemingly-endless gladiatorial match. While bloody and lurid, it just seemed shoehorned into the narrative, making an already long book even longer. But again, Sanders is so invested in his tale, so enthusiastic about it, that I couldn’t help but still enjoy everything. He must have been crushed that the book didn’t achieve at least some level of enduring fame.
Part of Sanders’s worldbuilding is a host of newspeak vocabulary. Some of it is a bit much, and like the rest of the novel it’s hard to believe these terms would be commonplace within two decades of the publication date. The more important new terms would be em for men, ef for women, objects for people, love for money, serve for work, stop for die, operative for true (and inoperative for false), and profit for happiness. Sanders even word-plays at time, intentionally using the words in the original (ie 1975) fashion – for example, in Book Y Nick and Paul talk about their plan to “stop” the character who used them as patsies in Book X, and initially you think they mean to “kill,” ie in the novel’s sense of the word, but really they just mean they want to plain old stop this character’s machinations. As mentioned earlier, I spent so long reading this novel that there were times where I found myself confusing words in real life with their usage in this book. And in some ways Sanders was prescient in this regard as well; I’ve been in more than a few marketing meetings where some hipster says that such and such a promotion “needs a little love.” In this context it means more attention, but it’s very similar to how Sanders uses love to mean money in The Tomorrow File.
Another aspect I wanted to touch on was Sanders’s prose style. He manages to convey this strange new “future” while still retaining enough characterization that Nick and several other characters go through definite changes over the course of the novel. The female characters are especially interesting, and another cool thing is that Sanders’s 1998 is truly progressive – more so than even our current world – in that absolutely no big deal is made out of the fact that women are equal (and in many cases superior to) men. This is not a #metoo world, or a world of identity politics; race is only occasionally mentioned and even the black characters are high up in the Federal food chain. Indeed the strongest character in the earliest section of the novel is Angela Berri, Nick’s hotstuff, green-haired boss…a character Nick “uses” quite often in the novel. (That’s one I forgot – “use” means to have sex.)
But a grating quirk to Sanders’s narrative is that, in the action and sex scenes, he goes for this clipped, staccato effect. Midway through the book Nick learns that there have been periodic terrorist attacks on the Chief Director; in this highly-bureacratic world, the national “satrep” score is key. This is a weekly report of the nation’s satisfaction. Although the satrep shows overall positivity, Nick learns – via Angela – that terrorism is skyrocketing. So obviously the satrep score is being “fiddled” with, and Nick gradually learns that it’s by those obso terrorists. (As for the satrep of the real-world United States of 2022, I’ll let this guy
speak to that.) Nick gets a first-hand look at the terrorism when, during a personal meeting with the Chief Director, they come under attack; here's a glimpse of that grating staccato style Sanders employs for such scenes:
The sex scenes go for the same clipped prose effect:
Granted, that excerpt is from late in the novel, when Nick is under the sway of a trial version of the Ultimate Pleasure drug. But sex, while not super explicit, is very central to this 1998; people “use” each other casually, and there’s none of the restrictions of today (or the real 1998, of course). In fact, it seems clear that most everyone is sleeping with each other casually, with no emotional attachments. Women proposition men just as frequently as men proposition women. This sex-focused aspect extends to the fashions (we learn that a “flying penis” icon is a new fashion accessory) and to TV – another super-weird bit, where Nick visits an old woman who sews as she watches her favorite TV program, “The Twenty-Six Positions.” Tonight’s episode: masturbation. Next week’s: Anal sex! (Nick informs us, again as if speaking to “Rip Van Winkles,” that television became increasingly permissive in the ’70, to the extent that graphic sex is shown.)
And to futher the “future 1970s” vibe, drugs are everywhere. Nick takes – and creates – a ton of drugs in this book. Given there are no restrictions (or inhibitions), people can buy “cannabis cigarettes” and indulge in basically any form of recreational drug. We also learn that there’s an “addictive soft drink” called Smack that literally everyone drinks; there are innumerable instances where Nick mixes himself “a vodka and Smack.” Coupled with the rampant mechanization of this future, as well as the fact that everything seems to be made of plastic, we are very much in a Spaced Out
type of ultramod future; there were some parts of The Tomorrow File
that had me certain Lawrence Sanders was aware of Haus Rucker
and their designs. A recurring bit is that practically everything begins with “plasti” or “petro,” being that these two substances are used to create everything from food to furniture. My favorite in this regard was “plastiforks;” surely there were plastic forks in 1975, they couldn’t have seemed that
“futuristic” at the time! And also this is very much a ‘70s future in the fashion regard, with government employees wearing jumpsuits, aka “zipsuits.”
But as you can see, there is a darkly humorous undercurrent to the novel. Nick has a sense of humor, but for the most part everything is pretty serious here…it’s just hidden humor. For example, I’m positive
I found an in-joke. Early in the book Nick tells us of another of his projects, the IMP, a sort of molecular ID verification concept. At one point he calls up an underling and tells them that if they need any help with the IMP to “call Jim Phelps.” Of course, “Jim Phelps” was the name of the character Peter Graves played in Mission: Impossible
, and Phelps’s crew was called the Impossible Missions Force…or “IMF
.” I will accept no other explanation than that this was a clear in-joke from Sanders. And then on the more lowbrow tip, one of the titles a person can acquire in this future is “AssDepDirRad,” which just sounds so juvenile that it has to be another buried joke. A less subtle recurring joke is how the food – all of it artificial and created out of petroleum or other chemicals – looks great but tastes terrible. There’s also recurring humor in the various ultra-bizarre dolls Nick’s dad creates, from a doll that pukes to a doll that dies
(the Die-Dee Doll) and must be buried; it even has upsell accessories like a shovel and coffin!
As I read The Tomorrow File
it dawned on me that the only thing Sanders really got wrong was the date: if anything, we are getting closer and closer to the 1998 he depicts here. The most prescient thing in this regard is the “politician/scientist” class Sanders presents; in our Covid world of “trust the science,” in which “the science” changes depending on the latest poll results
, Nick Flair and his colleauges are quite similar to real-life career politician/scientists like Anthony Fauci. I mean just read this and tell me if it doesn’t encapsulate the mindset of the activist “scientists” of our recent era:
Not only that, but as mentioned this 1998 is an Orwellian hellhole…if you run afoul of the government. As Voltaire said, it is very dangerous to be right when the government is wrong. You will be caught and “drained” (ie interrogated), and then your “corpus” (ie body) will be sent to some experimental compound “for the good of society,” where you will ultimately “stop” (ie die) as the result of some experiment, perhaps the recipient of a new chemical blood infusion. And you’ll do all of this after willingly signing an acceptance form – willing due to the fact that you’ve been drugged into compliance!
This is the iron fist behind the sex-and-drugs future of The Tomorrow File
, and as expected Nick will ultimately get a first-hand view. And as we go along with him we realize it isn’t so much that Sanders incorrectly predicted what 1998 would be like; it’s just that he got his year wrong. He clearly saw the way the future was headed. Sanders even manages to predict the proposed Covid Visas, which ultimately might lock into every facet of our lives, including our bank accounts, only granting “access” once we’ve been approved by a third party; in The Tomorrow File
it’s called a “BIN card,” and it operates in the same capacity. So clearly Sanders’s view of the future is the same as Orwell’s: “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” But no one will ever learn anything from 1984
or The Tomorrow File
. The US will continue on its path into leftist bureacracy, crushing indepence and free thought every step of the way. Compare the above excerpt to the plight of the January 6 protesters
, deemed “domestic terrorists” and held without bail
in Federal custody. Political prisoners. In the United States. And that’s okay in today’s world…because, like the “obso” terrorists in The Tomorrow File
, their protests ran counter to the greater good. And who tells us what
the “greater good” is? Why, the ruling class does, of course.
Perhaps that’s one thing Sanders delivers more than Orwell did (it’s been like thirty years since I read Orwell): he gives a glimpse of what it’s like to be a part of the ruling class. Nick Flair is one of the elite, a scientist who can effect political and social change, and who is 100% aligned with progressivism. And he is accordingly amoral, as are all the other brilliant youth around him, solely devoted to “serving” and moving the human race down the evolutionary path. The drugs and easy sex are just fringe benefits. But, as Nick ultimately discovers, humanity has been lost. I still think this theme could’ve been better elaborated via the obso plot in Book X than by the “fling with the First Lady” plot in Book Z, but still…I started this review thinking I’d pick on the things that bugged me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized The Tomorrow File really is a great novel. I mean it drew me in, it kept me interested, and it made me think about our own world…so really I don’t know what else would make for a great novel.
There were a few paperback editions over the years, but The Tomorrow File seems to be forgotten now. I’ve even done hard searches for “forgotten science fiction novels” and haven’t seen it mentioned, so it hasn’t resonated at all over the decades. Above I wondered if Lawrence Sanders was crushed by this; I’d love to know his own thoughts on the book and how it performed. He never again delivered a full sci-fi novel; in 1984 he published The Passion Of Molly T, a thriller set in the “feminist near future” of the late ‘80s, but it doesn’t look to be anywhere on the worldbuilding level of The Tomorrow File. But if you’re into ‘70s science fiction, and ‘70s fiction in general, then I’d definitely recommend The Tomorrow File. In fact I imagine it would improve even on a second reading, something I plan to do someday.