– Review by Paul Ewbank-
The neat thing about the apocalypse is that nobody has any idea what’s gonna happen afterwards. How society will look in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust or zombie plague or whatever is anyone’s guess, so writers have an awful lot of scope to try out new ideas to make their post-apocalyptic world different. David Brin takes advantage of this in his award winning 1985 novel The Postman. Though it treads many of the familiar beats of a post apocalyptic survival epic, Brin manages to incorporate a good number of concepts and thoughts that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
It’s some time in the 21st century and America has been ruined by wars and diseases and all the usual nastiness. Our hero is Gordon Krantz, a former college student turned wandering minstrel who travels from one ruined, primitive town to another earning a living with songs and performances written before the dark times. Hardened by sixteen years walking the wilderness but still unashamedly sentimental and idealistic, Gordon is hardly your typical grizzled tough guy protagonist. Whilst pursuing a band of thieves who robbed him and left him to almost certain death he comes across the skeleton of a postman and a bag of mail in the back of an old jeep. Taking the postal uniform to keep warm, he finds upon his next village visit that the uniform still carries significance and even inspiration for the weary survivors. People somehow believe that if the post is up and running again, America must be on the way to recovery. Unwilling to dash their hope, Gordon becomes increasingly entangled in the lie of a Restored United States postal service which initially gives him power but soon leads to complications. Gordon’s journey takes him through a whole host of communities and ways of surviving in the ruined land. The book likewise jumps around a lot and feels a bit aimless at times. Each chunk is enjoyable enough and Brin’s detailed, authentic storytelling is mostly engaging, but despite its good intentions, the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together.
The Postman does however get off to a strong start. Everything up until Gordon finds the uniform is pure post-apocalyptic survival, filled with all the details that losers like me and Liz discuss over pints in dingy taverns, but there is genuine sorrow in the action and loneliness. Poor Gordon still fondly remembers his old life and his kindness and sense of fair play are painfully at odds with the harsh world he now lives in. Early in the book, after he has been robbed by a band of thugs, Gordon initially attempts to follow them but eventually decided that he can choose to be more civilised than the rest of the world and that letting them live rather than killing them is his privilege. It’s a nice touch. Unfortunately, neither the heart or even the level of excitement persist long into the book. A book surprisingly bereft of actual violence, for most of the story the main source of tension comes from Gordon’s attempts to blag being an inspector from the Restored Government and wondering when he’ll get found out. (BIG SPOILER COMING UP). But here’s the thing. He never gets found out. People go on believing his lie right up till the end of the book, making most of the drama seem a tad irrelevant. The added injection of an army of extreme survivalists or ‘Holnists’ adds the occasional burst of action, and becomes much more central later on, but I’ll get to that.
There are a lot of ideas being thrown around in The Postman, and it’s largely hit and miss unfortunately. The idea of inspiration being drawn from such a mundane and looked down-upon profession as a postman is certainly interesting and new, and it’s fun to see how Gordon’s lie gets bigger and bigger until it becomes a modern day myth. Speaking of myths, the whole ‘Cyclops’ arc is similarly ingenious, and the moment when the truth of it is finally revealed is one of the most moving in the book. Other ideas are less well implemented. Late in the book the idea of ‘augments’ or genetically engineered human soldiers is introduced completely out of nowhere and feels like an artificial and unnecessary way of raising the stakes. Gordon also meets a woman called Dena who is recruiting an army of ultra militant feminists to combat male oppression and atone for the crimes of women before the fall of civilisation. This whole subplot is…well, it’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever read. Though certainly unexpected it ends up being more confusing than eye-opening and neither feminism nor the alternatives are presented in a particularly positive light.
Aside from this and a few other serious head-scratcher moments the skittish plot is still fairly predictable once it gets into its groove. It hits all the right spots and each character dies exactly when they’re supposed to but I was never bored. The central premise and writing style are strong enough to endure a slightly lacklustre execution and there are enough moments of brilliance to keep you reading to the surprisingly positive conclusion. But what really sells The Postman is not what it says about the power of symbols and myths to inspire hope, but what it says about its readers.
As I mentioned before the principal enemy in this book is a cult of ultra violent, testosterone fuelled gun nuts. These Holnists (named after their infamous founder Nathan Holn) favour a return to feudal society and the strong ruling over the weak. They raid and destroy the vulnerable villages and towns of the post apocalypse society, raping, enslaving, burning and mutilating corpses to take home as trophies. As villains go they’re pretty terrifying, and the section of the book when Gordon is taken prisoner by this evil lot is genuinely nasty. But Brin’s masterstroke comes when he reveals that these were the guys who were apocalypse nuts even before all the wars and the plagues and stuff. These were the guys discussing strategies over pints in dingy taverns, stockpiling weapons and building hideaways in forests and mountains. In other words, they’re guys like us who think it’s fun to plan what they’ll do when the end comes. And in the world of The Postman it is them that bring about humanity’s downfall. After the war ended and the nuclear winter subsided, humanity could have regrouped and the governments and armies could have restored order. But these apocalypse-longing nutcases drove everything to hell by retreating to their hideouts, attacking the relief workers and spreading civil war and savagery when what the world needed was unity. By causing a total breakdown of law they doomed America to never recover from its wounds and instead sink into a new dark age. It’s a vicious self fulfilling prophecy- if you plan for the end of civilisation then that’s exactly what you’re gonna get.
It’s a tough lesson to take. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with enjoying post apocalyptic stories- obviously I don’t think that’s true. But in the parts of the world where paranoid nutcases have guns rather than blogs it’s easy to see the line between interest and obsession becoming deadly. And that’s the brilliance of The Postman; it holds up the mirror to the exact group of people who would enjoy reading it. Few authors have the balls to do that.