David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman is an odd sort of science fiction tale. Instead of focusing on how civilization can fall to such a sorry state, it examines one man’s unlikely role in helping to bring hope and a sense of purpose back to a society trying desperately to maintain a sense of order and meaning in a world on the brink of total collapse. The power of symbols is a theme that runs throughout the book, and one that helps frame society’s desire to return (or at least cling on) to the safe, comfortable and reassuring memories from their past. Throughout the book, Brin does a good job of reminding us that civilization isn’t just made up of people, but also of shared ideas and belief systems that help shape how we communicate and interact with the world. By showing how powerful a simple idea can be (even one that is based on a lie), he seems to be saying that the power to heal and rebuild comes from reaffirming our shared humanity rather than closing ourselves off from the outside world and protecting what’s ours. If that all sounds a bit heady and philosophical – don’t worry. The book has enough narrative momentum and genuine intrigue to keep you excited and entertained throughout.
Although it takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States, it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining what happened or how society came to be in such terrible shape. There’s no plague to deal with or nuclear fallout to fear. What we get are bits and pieces about the destruction of the major cities and the electromagnetic pulses that supposedly shut down all of the world’ electronics – essentially returning civilization to a pre-industrial state. We first meet our hero Gordon Krantz somewhere in the foothills of Oregon. We don’t get a lot of background about Gordon. Apparently he traveled west from Minnesota, although Brin never explains exactly why. He seems to be roaming wherever he can find food and shelter, meeting random people along the way and generally just trying to survive. When Gordon’s camp is looted by a roving gang of thieves, he’s forced to take refuge in a broken down postal van for warmth. Having lost most of his clothes, he takes the postal uniform off the deceased former owner of the van, as well as a bag of unopened mail that he finds. When he brings the bag to the nearest town hoping to barter for food and shelter, he is forced to pretend that he is actual a postman from the “Restored United States of America” in order to gain entrance to the town.
But what starts out as a lie made in desperation, begins to turn into something much more. Cutoff from the rest of civilization, the remaining population in Oregon have turned to a feudal system of government, with well-armed despots ruling with an iron fist to help communities ration food and services (and provide protect against bands of marauding “hypersurvivalists” known as Holnists). Since no one has heard anything from state or national governments for over 20 years, they assume (correctly) that they’re alone and have to fend for themselves. So when Gordon shows up claiming to be from the “Restored United States of America” and looking to re-establish postal routes in the reason, it gives the people hope – not just that the U.S. still has a functioning government, but that society itself is starting to recover and get back to normal. While Gordon is initially hesitant to continue the fraud, he starts to see the positive effect that the deception has on the residents of the communities he visits. Hoping to capitalize on people’s enthusiasm, Gordon starts appointing postmasters in each community in charge of setting up mail service between the various communities.
As Gordon moves further north in Oregon, he meets communities who have struggled to maintain hope in their own separate ways, including one in Corvallis that apparently has access to a sentient machine known as the Cyclops who was able to survive the electromagnetic pulse. Although the machine doesn’t actually work anymore, the community leaders try to keep up the illusion that it is in order to maintain hope and order among their people. But no matter where he goes, he keeps being confronted by the spectre of the Holnist hypersurvivalists. Aggressive, violent, and seemingly without remorse, they have been raiding villages through the area for supplies, slaves, etc. While the communities have done their best to resist, the Holnists seem to be taking more and more as time goes on. As the de facto symbol of the “Restored United States of America,” Gordon is enlisted to help lead the resistance against the hypersurvivalist in a last ditch attempt to stave off the destruction of what little civilization is left.
Brin does a wonderful job of keeping the pacing brisk and the stakes high. While the story lacks a lot of the familiar trappings of the science fiction genre (cool gadgets, alien species, etc.), it still manages to capture the feeling that this is a world that could possibly exist if given the right circumstances (which is what all sci-fi is trying to do). The issue of what civilization becomes if the normal structures and rules are tossed out the window is something that has been covered in a lot of different books. But by focusing on how a society rebuilds after a fall, Brin is able to offer a unique take on a familiar tale. In demonstrating the power of symbols and their ability to bring people together for a common cause, he shows how an idea (even if it’s a lie) can have an even greater impact than the person who creates it.