The Postman

by David Brin

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: November 1985
Printing: August 1988
ISBN: 0-553-27874-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 321

Buy at Powell's Books

Most people who know of this book have probably heard about it from the Kevin Costner movie. Unfortunately I saw the movie first, so I waited to read the book until the memory faded. The movie is pointless and stupid, a Costner take on Mad Max. It's based very loosely on the first 50 pages of the book and an early throw-away incident, with a heavily modified form of the book's final villains tossed in. It's a waste of time; if you haven't seen it, don't bother. The book is a more complicated problem.

The Postman is, of course, post-apocalyptic. There was some sort of world war, the details of which (and the opponent of which) are left mostly unstated. Following that war were bioengineered plagues and some sort of nuclear winter. Civilization collapsed. The protagonist of this book, Gordon, was in a militia in Minnesota, trying to protect the local remnants of civilization, before all his comrades died and he picked up and headed west. The book opens in the eastern Cascades, where Gordon is robbed by a gang and survives by discovering an abandoned postal van and a long-dead postman. He takes his clothing and, on a whim, some of the letters, without much thinking about it. But when he makes it to the town of Pine View, the people there have an unexpected and intense reaction to the uniform, and he finds himself pushed into a matching role.

Gordon's position and fame grow as he travels west from Pine View into the heart of Oregon, mostly at first because it's useful. People admit him to walled towns, local strongmen think twice about messing with him, and he gets respect, attention, and support. The story grows in the telling: he becomes a scout for a Restored United States, the first to establish connections, and he recruits other carriers to set up mail delivery. People in this book are desperate to believe in something bigger than themselves after more than a decade of chaos and survival and collect around Gordon and his role like a crystal forming around a seed.

As far as this goes, it's a somewhat interesting premise. Gordon is very well aware that he's fundamentally a fraud. He frequently considers dropping the charade, but becomes trapped in the role and the built-up expectations. The book is a questioning of heroism and leadership that explores the extent to which someone can become the role that they play if they play it for long enough. Brin shows Gordon as a bitter and somewhat opportunistic man who nonetheless has enough innate morality to rise to the role that he's filling. The main story theme emphasizes the power of an idea in holding civilization together. (That part of the book struck me as very American.)

There are problems, though. For the first half of the book, during which it's mostly an adventure story and an exploration of post-apocalyptic Oregon, they're minor: an awkwardness of phrasing and pacing, a sense that the reader is being bludgeoned a bit by the writing rather than smoothly flowing into the book. But when Brin starts increasing the scope of the book and setting up the final confrontation with the survivalist Holnists, The Postman goes completely off the rails.

First, Brin introduces a very strange gender angle to the story. Through most of the book, women's roles have reverted to at best feudal status and often to chattel status following the standard "women's rights are an artifact of modern civilization" pattern. In one of the towns Gordon enters later, though, he meets a sort of second-wave feminist who has a substantial following. Through those discussions, her actions, and later musings by Gordon (the book is written in tight third person), Brin introduces a pile of bizarre ideas about the need for women to control the violence of men, a supposed dichotomy in male behavior between heroes and scoundrels, and (thankfully not direct) parallels with Lysistrata. This part of the book felt to me like an attempt at a Sherri Tepper novel told from a male point of view, except where Gordon falls into condescension and knee-jerk overprotectiveness. Oh, and then the climax of the book is a testosterone-filled bare-knuckle fight between Manly Men. This works about as badly as you might think, veering wildly between weird patronization and an apparently sincere but clueless attempt to recognize uniquely female strengths, all built on a thoroughly binary gender model.

Race fares somewhat better only in that The Postman is firmly in the "pick some characters at random and color them black without changing their behavior" camp, which for SF readers is unlikely to provoke much more than a long-suffering sigh. Brin does go somewhat out of his way to show the Holnists, who otherwise come across as white-supremacist survivalists with an obsession with Nietzschean supermen, as less racist than Gordon expects them to be. He probably would have done better to leave the topic alone, since raising race in the book just reminds the reader of how little he's dealt with it, and that the most prominent black character in the book is Gordon's loyal lieutenant.

On top of those problems, Brin's ending pulls the rug out from under the world he built. A significant theme of The Postman up to the ending is a de-emphasizing technology and an emphasis on people, their choices, and their cooperation. There's a well-handled part near the middle where Brin takes a long look at the possibilties of technology as salvation, and this theme ties in well with Gordon's ongoing struggle with the nature of heroism. But then Brin introduces villains out of a superhero comic, followed by an unbelievable deus ex machina climax that focuses the reader's attention on the weakest parts of the book.

The Postman is clearly better than the movie, but that's not saying a lot. I disliked the slow start, but by the middle of the book it was growing on me and I found myself enjoying it more than I expected. I thought I might be able to surprisingly recommend it. But the cringeworthy feminist subplot and the collapse of the world construction at the ending left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you want a far better treatment of the same core themes, including the power of ideas to rally people, but also including a solid treatment of racism and sexism in a post-apocalyptic world, read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents instead. Except that I find Brin's idea of a restored Postal Service both more inspiring and more practical than Butler's space program mythology, they're simply better books in every way, and sadly show, by stark contrast, where The Postman doesn't work.

One final personal note: if one is going to set a significant scene in Oakridge, Oregon, it would be nice if I actually recognized anything of Oakridge in that scene. Part of my family is from there and I've spent many weeks wandering about the town, and I sadly recognized very little of it in this book. Brin errs by making the scene far too generic rather than getting it wrong, so I can't complain too much, but it was disappointing.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-03-31

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