Hello faithful readers, and welcome to another You Should Read This. Today I’m taking a bit of a departure from the type of books I usually recommend in two ways: it’s fairly old (originally published back in 1985), and it’s a work of post-apocalyptic science fiction – The Postman, by David Brin.
Now before I get into why I like this book so much, I’ll give you the blurb, courtesy of Amazon.com (as always):
This is the story of a lie that became the most powerful kind of truth. A timeless novel as urgently compelling as War Day or Alas, Babylon, David Brin’s The Postman is the dramatically moving saga of a man who rekindled the spirit of America through the power of a dream, from a modern master of science fiction.
He was a survivor—a wanderer who traded tales for food and shelter in the dark and savage aftermath of a devastating war. Fate touches him one chill winter’s day when he borrows the jacket of a long-dead postal worker to protect himself from the cold. The old, worn uniform still has power as a symbol of hope, and with it he begins to weave his greatest tale, of a nation on the road to recovery.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “hey, wasn’t there a crappy Kevin Costner movie called The Postman?” And yes, you’d be right – Kevin Costner did make an adaptation of this novel back in 1997. But don’t let that sour you on this book, because it’s (at best) a loose adaptation of the novel. Case in point – while the movie was a flop both among critics and viewers, the novel won the Locus Award and the John W. Campbel Award for 1986, and was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for that same year.
The story follows a man by the name of Gordon Krantz living in the Pacific Northwest some time after the collapse of civilization in the aftermath of a major war that included the destruction of major cities (presumably via nuclear weapons) and the use of bioweapons. After a group of bandits steal most of his stuff, Gordon takes shelter in a postal truck that had been abandoned for years (the driver having been killed by bandits some time after the war). Gordon takes the postman’s uniform and a bag of letters, and under the guise as a representative of the “Restored United States,” manages to gain entrance to a nearby town. Over time, though, Gordon’s cover as a Postal Inspector and the Restored United States become more and more real.
I won’t go further into the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. So we’ll move on to why I like this book so much.
A big part of it’s probably the political undertone. It’s established that shortly before the war, a guy by the name of Nathan Holn (who was by all rights a right-wing nutcase) wrote a book espousing an authoritarian, survival-of-the-fittest, hyper-individualist, hyper-masculine philosophy. Basically, take most of the worst aspects of GamerGaters, Men’s Rights Activists, and right-wing conspiracy nuts, mix them all together, and you’ll have Nathan Holn and his followers. In fact, it’s pretty much stated out-right that it’s the Holnist hyper-survivalists are the principal cause for why things are still as bad as they are – the US could have recovered from the bombs, the EMPs, and the super-plagues, if only these assholes hadn’t decided to take advantage of the opportunity to start raping, pillaging, and generally doing as they pleased, rather than helping people.
So basically, it’s the guys who spent all their time building bunkers, stockpiling weapons, and generally preparing for the collapse of society that caused the collapse of society. And they’re all bastards for it.
But there’s also the theme about the importance of civilization that appeals to me. In his guise as a postman, Gordon isn’t just delivering mail as a means of getting food and supplies – he’s spreading an idea, the idea of a Restored United States. By the time the book starts, it’s been somewhere around fifteen years since the war, and society as degenerated quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned Holnists, regular bandits, but it seems like people in general have decided to give up on trying to maintain anything but a faint veneer of civilization – they’ve given up on trying to fix things.
I’ll give you an example. At one point, Gordon gets treated as the guest of honor in a town he visits. And as part of the celebrations, the people in the town organize a series of dog fights. But after one fight, they all see how horrified Gordon is at this, and all the people in town have a moment where they collectively go, “what the hell are we doing?” I find it kind of beautiful that, despite how far these people have apparently gone, all it takes is the reminder of what life used to be like for them to be better.
Gordon’s actions, even his presence, makes things better. Not because he’s actively trying to rebuild society, but because people want to rebuild society – all they needed was a little push. Throughout the first part of the book, Gordon’s constantly asking “who will take responsibility?” – he’s constantly looking for someone to have taken the role of leader, someone who’s started organizing things, and is getting society back on its feet. And it’s only long after he’s started pretending to be a postman that he sees people actively working to make things better.