While Brin’s book has little to do with our current postal predicament, the idea of a hopeful post-apocalyptic novel intrigued me when I saw it come across my news feed. I was hooked by the concept of reviving the U.S. Postal Service to inspire people, and I picked up the novel for the first time.
It was a great story, full of action and popcorn philosophy, set in a dark and dangerous post-apocalyptic Oregon. Some of the tech was a little dated, but I love stories of hope with a science fiction twist.
The Postman delivered.
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 him 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.
This is the story of a lie that became the most powerful kind of truth.
They piqued my interest at “he borrows the jacket of a long-dead postal worker”, and sank the hook with “symbol of hope.” I’ve always been somewhat of a romantic, and I was dying to know what an optimistic post-apocalypse world would look like after reading dark ones like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The Postman isn’t all kittens and sunshine. It takes place in a world that’s been devastated by nuclear war. Brin’s prose is rich and sharp, and he pulls you into action from chapter one. The story gallops along at that pace for thirty or forty pages, fully immersing you in Gordon Krantz’s life-or-death flight from a group of bandits who stole his supplies. Eventually he finds the aforementioned jacket of a long-dead postal worker, and it saves his life.
From there, things get even more interesting. Gordon travels to a small community where he earns his room and board by performing Shakespeare plays from memory. But the real act he’s performing, unknown even to himself, is that of a postman. His jacket and hat and leather mailbag set people’s imaginations afire. Though he never intended to do so, Gordon eventually departs carrying their mail—letters to lost loved ones living in distant towns. It gives him a cover story for his travels and opens the door to distrustful communities. In exchange, he gives them hope—and one hell of a good story.
This is where the big lie begins. What would a good moral novel be without a big lie? As Gordon travels through Oregon, from small town to isolated community, he meets people who fall in love with the legend he’s spun. As a performer, he’s the perfect fit for the part. He convinces people there’s a government back in St. Paul. He explains that he’s here on the west coast as their emissary. And although Gordon feels guilty for lying to them, the legend has a way of propelling him forward into ever more grandiose fabrications.
Hope is a funny thing. It makes people believe. When Gordon hears rumors of a working supercomputer operating out of Corvallis, he hopes to find something more substantial to rest his hopes on than his own flimsy lies. Cyclops, as the supercomputer is called, turns out to be kind of cheesy, but it was the 80s and Brin didn’t know then what we know about computing and artificial intelligence. I shook my head and chuckled at parts of it, but appreciated how the myth of Cyclops played off against Gordon’s doubts about his own story.
On his way, Gordon runs into Holnists, a group of brutal survivalists who have a reputation for savagely killing innocents and keeping trophies. We learn that their philosophy—might is right, survival of the fittest—contributed to the chaos of the fall that followed the Doomwar. Unfortunately for idealists like Gordon, it turns out they’re not just looking for trouble, they’re here to invade, and they’ve brought an army with them.
What follows is a whirlwind sequence of believable guerilla warfare in the Oregon wilderness. Gordon uses the idea of the Restored United States to galvanize and gather the population in time to mount a defense. The second half of the book is by turns breathtaking and soaring, heartbreaking and frustrating. It deals with themes of honor and truth and love and loss.
Though the idea of quitting never crossed my mind, I was a little disappointed in how the philosophy of feminism was portrayed. Compared to everything else in the book, Brin’s feminists are the least coherent. The only color the author seems to know how to paint feminists is “crazy.” Almost as if Brin himself didn’t think the “women Scouts” were really capable of pulling off the heroic act of sacrifice they eventually performed. It had the result of lowering my estimation of Gordon, who until this point had been so sharp and intelligent.
In the end, Brin recovers his footing and gives the moral heart of the story a fitting conclusion. He tops it off with a science fiction twist that, while not exactly surprising, was nonetheless the kind of fun you’d expect to find in a science fiction action flick from 1985. I enjoyed the hell out of the big fight scene. But most of all, I enjoyed seeing the mythology of the U.S. Postal Service take on a power of its own beyond Gordon.
What this story does have in common with the predicament the USPS currently finds itself in, here in 2020, is the noble idea of an institution. I’m glad we have this tale of adventure from David Brin to remind people how the U.S. Postal Service does a great service to connect us to each other. It shows us how, even in a world plagued by cruelty, where survival comes first at any cost, the right myth has the power make people believe in something bigger than themselves.
Favorite Quotes from The Postman
Morrison, a farmer who had barely escaped the rape of Greenleaf Town last September, eyed him with the simmering look of a man who had lost everything he loved, and was therefore no longer entirely of this world.
They loved to accuse themselves of terrible crimes as a people: a strange practice until you understood that its hidden purpose was to make themselves better – better to each other – better to the Earth – better than prior generations.
Neither bothered to move from the exact spot where he rolled to a stop. A chance to sleep. For the moment, that was all that mattered. Again, there were no dreams – only occasional twitching as abused muscles misfired through the rest of the day, the night, and all the following morning.
Gordon was too weak to strangle Johnny for his incredible, jarring cheerfulness. He tried to smile back instead, but it only made his cracked lips hurt.
Gordon wondered, amazed. Was this why he’d lied for so long, why he told such fairy tales?…because he needed them? Because he couldn’t let go of them? He answered himself. Without them, I would have curled up and died. Funny, he had never seen it quite that way before, in such startling clarity. In the darkness within himself the dream glowed – even if it existed nowhere else in the Universe – flickering like a diatom, like a bright mote hovering in a murky sea. Amidst the otherwise total blackness, it was as if he stood in front of it. He seemed to take it in his hand, astonished by the light. The jewel grew. And in its facets he saw more than people, more than generations. A future took shape around him, enveloping him, penetrating his heart.
Anyway, he couldn’t stay any longer. In this valley everything would perpetually remind him of the harm he had accomplished in doing good.
Some links on this page are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.