Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin is one of 2022’s most popular novels. It has been recommended to me by friends, acquaintances, the author John Green, BookTokers, end of the year lists and it won, among a number of awards, Best Fiction in the Goodreads Choice Awards – hell, I voted for it in the Goodreads Choice Awards when I had read maybe 20 pages because I knew I would love it! And still it took me months to actually complete it. And then I finally gave it the highest rating, because I am predictable and I do know myself. I want to dive a bit into what makes this book so special – and what made it so hard for me to read quickly.
In Tomorrow, two kids, Sam and Sadie, meet in a hospital, start playing games together and become friends. Many years later, they, estranged but connected through both chance and their passions, meet again and start developing games. It’s the 90s, so game development looks a lot different from what it is now and fewer people do it. Sam and Sadie are talented, smart, and fame almost comes easy to them, but everything else doesn’t, least of all their friendship. This book spans several decades, taking us from youth far into adulthood, and through it all, these two protagonists are both insufferable and so deeply understandable.
What fascinates me most about this book is its insistence on always adding one more layer (of meaning, of meta-ness) than you think it does. I think this extends to more parts than I can explain without spoiling the whole story, but I promise you it’s there. Tomorrow is told in a mostly linear fashion, with vignettes into a distant future or past. These manage to imbue the story with such a sense of foreboding that made me read the first 150 pages over the course of, uhm, two months and then stop completely because I knew things would go wrong/get complicated and I was genuinely scared of finding out how bad it would get. After I had finally found my courage again three weeks later, I sat down and read the other 250 pages in less than 24 hours, despite all my deadlines.
Examining video game development through the lens of a (kind of) coming-of-age story – or maybe it’s more examining life through the lens of video game development – is not what I expected this book to be about, both because I didn’t look anything up before I bought it (I just believed the hype I guess) and because there are very few novels about video games (please feel free to prove me wrong). Thematically this book tackles a lot, apart from the main focus on work and relationships, it also tackles disability, identity, grief, culture and much more.
One early frustration for me was the book’s setting in the 90s and early 2000s, maybe because some of it felt a little bit like my video game history lectures (even though I did enjoy those) and also because I kept wondering why no one tells a story like this set in our current time. But after I got over myself it became clear why this setting is so perfect for this story: Tomorrow touches on themes that only became conversation topics or broader discussed issues in the past ten years. It alludes to these without elaborating, both showing that things improved (we do talk more about said issues), and also how unique this point in time was in game development specifically and in American society generally. One obvious point is how women in the video game industry are treated, both as game characters and as game developers, which Gamergate (and MeToo) really brought to the forefront, as well as how weird, fun and dangerous online gaming communities can be. These are two rather thoroughly discussed topics in Tomorrow, albeit not using the same terminology we use today. Sadie’s character is a very good example for this addressing of social issues, which made it very easy for me to sympathize with her. She has to go through so much trouble on her own, as many women in this industry had (and have) to.
As Sam and Sadie are learning to make games together, their creative processes and creative differences become a huge focus of the novel. Their relationship is a fascinating one and it is largely shaped by how they approach their work because, for a long time, everything else isn’t as important. Other peoples’ creative working processes are always fascinating to me. In this case, it’s two people in their early twenties creating media together quite like most smart-ish people at this age create media: they throw a lot of things together, they only think certain parts through, and there are a whole lot of arguments. I think this is quite cleverly mirrored in the book’s cover: To have a cover depicting Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave is pretentious, to have a title taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth on top of it is even more pretentious, but for a story of two protagonists who are pretentious and whose main conflicts in parts hinge on the fact that they have pretentious, obnoxious opinions on work and ethics and privilege – it fits perfectly well together. (It’s also, in my opinion, an absolutely gorgeous cover.)
There is also something very video game-y about the story’s narration – and that feels so ridiculously obvious to say because from the first pages on it’s incredibly evident how much Zevin embraces video games and the kind of stories told through and within them. However, this again goes beyond themes and references. In the same way visual novels or certain point-and-click games are reminiscent of books that you can play, something that is often pointed out as if to disallow them of being games, Tomorrow’s storytelling is incredibly playful and imaginative. I think Zevin figured out one of the great strengths of writing books about video games here – you can both use video game tactics to tell stories and use the protagonists‘ knowledge of them in the way they engage with their own lives.
Maybe none of these points alone have the potential of making a book special, but I’d argue that the combination of these points makes Tomorrow a very special novel. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a book I’d recommend to everyone, but I think it’s especially interesting (and satisfying) to those who know a little bit about games and creativity and want to spend a couple hundred pages being frustrated about the fact that you’ll never get to play the games the protagonists are making.