The Postman (1985) by David Brin

ThePostman1There’s something mythical about the persistence of the U.S. postal service which even still manages to carry on alongside the ever-expanding models of privatized shipping, especially in this age of digital communications and industrial shipping accounts. Even C.M. Kornbluth satirized those uncanny postal promises to weather any misery, his mail girl’s bureaucratic duty surviving without a hiccup during the Soviet occupation of the U.S. in his Cold War satire Not This August (1955). I assume Terry Pratchett beat the joke to death in Going Postal (2004). David Brin also exercises this confidence in the power of postal bureaucracy, imaginary though it may be, in his post-apocalyptic, Earth Abides-tribute, The Postman (1985), in which a post-civ loner, Gordon, stumbles upon a wrecked mail truck in the spring of nuclear winter and adopts the persona of a mail carrier to make favor with budding, hair-trigger communities of the ruined western United States.

It’s actually a humorous premise, this dystopian Johnny Appleseed of mail, and probably one that would be more successful in the hands of a deft SF satirist. In Brin’s hands, the notion is just too earnest with Gordon traipsing into these post-apoc cloisters, collectives, and mini-despots, restoring patriotism and, subsequently, order to a post-nuclear winter west coast. The US government is no more in this dilapidated world, no mail service, either, but Gordon’s presence in these communities, with his misleading mail carrier uniform and bag full of never-delivered letters, and his lies about the survival of the United States government, is just enough to replenish American faith and empowerment. Gordon is a hero to these communities and a threat to their oppressors; his patriotic message-delivering superpowers will deliver them from the stagnation and oppression of insularity. A postal Jesus.

(But it’s impossible not to imagine Kevin Costner (thanks to the movie posters), which brings a smarmy artificiality to Gordon’s character that was likely not Brin’s intention, but I almost prefer it to the original Gordon’s naive sincerity.)

Of course, it’s not so clean and Apple pie easy: Gordon’s work has barely started by book’s end, and the bad guys, the evil Holnists, named for author Nathan Holn, an Ayn Rand-type of the survivalist movement, won’t give up power so easily. The Holnists are an added contrivance to an already flag-pandering tale, their depictions too shallow and orchestrated to foster interest, their motivations dubious and illogical in the grand scheme of their philosophy: Survivalists who communize. An individualist hierarchy. A dog-eat-dog cooperative. A rule-based violent chaos. Its stability is dubious; its evilness too assured. Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World (1974) establishes a much more nuanced and humanized bad-guy dystopia. (Review forthcoming.)

Speaking of feminist dystopian fiction, this is one of Brin’s earlier experiments with feminism, one area where Brin is more adept at capturing ambiguity, though it merits wondering if that’s only because he’s either so distant from or subconsciously uncomfortable with the philosophy that he is better able to portray the ambiguity that is so desperately lacking in his other themes. The feminist leader of this story is caustic and rigid, possessive and backwards (she calls her team “my girls” a lot). She impulsively leads “her girls” into a battle with the survivalists, resulting in the deaths of many women. I’m not sure what Brin is trying to say here, perhaps it ties into his overall critique of hierarchical leadership, but feminist-flavored mixed messages like these translate best as “I’m all for equality, but know your limits.” Brin’s 1993 YA swashbuckler Glory Season (1993) did a better job portraying a rounded (notice I didn’t say ‘well’-rounded), provocative vision of feminist society (hetero-centric though it may be; hierarchical though it may be) that makes for better food for thought– at least something better to argue about– whereas in The Postman, the message remains undeliverable.

But Brin’s main aim in The Postman is to comment on the power of myth, invoking the imaginary nature of nationhood, leadership, and even the economy. That “free and brave” feeling carries on into the unwritten future of the tale, and, like any novel about a single person’s journey, to deepen his mythic theme, Brin borrows Odyssean details throughout, the structure and chapter headings being obvious tributes. It’s hard to complain that the survivalist Holnist monsters are too unreal when, Brin seems to argue, the United States is unreal itself. It only exists because citizens (and enemies) believe it exists.

ThePostman2The premise alone is enough to attract interest, though its stretched, uneven arcs (and its awkward attempts at feminist commentary) might not hold for long, and the patriotism is too old-fashioned and syrupy for readers in the age of GWOT. It’s strange that this story managed to capture the attention of Hollywood, but it’s not like ‘80s SF had much to offer, and this is one of those rare times when a book blurb inspires more intrigue than the actual book. (The title pun, is rather clever, too. Post-man.) I would make a “return to sender” joke right here, but it’ll pass a long Sunday of no new book deliveries.

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29 thoughts on “The Postman (1985) by David Brin

  1. marzaat says:

    I was wondering what you would make of the superman survivalists.

    I think they really weaken the last part of the book. At least the movie didn’t have them.

    I always assume the inspiration for the book was the minor postman character in Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just didn’t find them or their social structure believable. Are they anarcho-survivalists or aren’t they? I’ll try to remember that for Lucifer’s Hammer, which is on my list and I am already dreading/rubbing my hands in anticipation of being entertainingly annoyed.

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      • marzaat says:

        I objected to them as pretty cartoonish survivalists. I read some survivalist magazines in the 1980s.

        As I recall the Nathan Holnists were a lot like what most survivalists of the era would term, disparagingly, “freebooters” — their only preparation for catastrophe being having enough guns and ammo to take other people’s stuff.

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  2. You know, I sat here thinking (hoping?) it was about time for another Couch to Moon post. I’m glad I decided to check because, y’know, I found this post here…

    I haven’t read this one yet for some of the same reasons you bring up here, the syrupy post-apocalyptic patriotism and nonsensical survivalist baddies. I did see the movie and so Kevin Costner and flag-waving are the main things that comes to mind… and it kind of bleeds together with Waterworld in my memory, creating a sickly apocalyptic mess with way too much cheese. So I’m glad to read your insights about it.

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  3. Kate says:

    I struggled to reach the end of The Postman, but did review it, and I too found it wanting. It could have been so much better! I don’t think this is really an ‘experiment’ with feminism for Brin, more a clumsy acknowledgement that some girls somewhere might like to read about women having an action role, so here’s one or two. He wasn’t really thinking, just cramming women into men’s roles, as well as into the usual repressed and ready-for-sex roles. That scene where Gordon is seduced because X wants children and her husband can’t give them to her, oh bleagh.

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    • …And then he had to leave the village because it would be too awkward for him to stay… yeah, that just seemed like a really contrived reason to explain why he couldn’t settle (which is what he wanted from the beginning).

      Brin always seems to have some gender commentary going on in his books, Glory Season being the most overt, but it never feels quite right, so yeah, it may be that he’s just wedging something in to increase marketability. I have wondered, after reading several of his mediocre novels (and this one made into a movie) if he’s just a really good pitch man with great connections. (I’ve wondered the same thing about John Scalzi.)

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  4. Jesse says:

    One of my few memories of this book is a scene toward the end. The postman is trying to escape with a couple of female companions. In the urgency of the situation, they attempt to cross a river, only to have one of the women swept away. Despite the imminent threat bearing down on them, the postman/Brin find time to comment on how stimulating the dress is plastered to the woman’s body as she floats downstream. I thought that about summed up his understanding of feminism.

    I think Brin’s heart is in the right place (the attempt to be progressive), but his brain just doesn’t possess the awareness to understand how ingrained (i.e. non-progressive) his views/presentation of women actually are.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, that scene was just awkward enough for me to wonder if that was ’80s publisher-inspired “hey, you need more tits in this.” Your view of Brin is exactly in line with my own: his heart is in the right place. I see him on Twitter and he RTs all kinds of interesting, progressive things, and his books address progressive elements ahead of other scifi writers, especially from the ultra-genre ’80s and ’90s. He’s just a bland, science-minded writer, and I always think I would like his ideas more if a literary-style SF writer could reboot his work. I’ve been more pleased with his YA stuff. If I had kids, I would want them to read Brin.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      Wait what? Brin actually has a character ogle the breasts of a dead woman? Terrible. Completely agree with Megan’s assessment: “He’s just a bland, science-minded writer, and I always think I would like his ideas more if a literary-style SF writer could reboot his work.”

      Avoided this one… Did read the entire Uplift and Uplift storm series. And Kiln People, and Earth… And, I am embarrassed to say, had a copy of The Practice Effect (1984) at one time — talk about horrid covers!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nathan Holn, God rest his soul!

    I’m increasingly impressed with your writing. Stop being better than me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. liminalt says:

    Think this is staying on my “one to miss” list. I remember that I enjoyed the Uplift series when I read them eons ago, because it was such a neat premise, and they were fun, easy reads. But yeh, I think I’m with Jesse here: I think he means well when it comes to writing women, but he does pretty badly.

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  7. Randolph says:

    I think much better of the novella version of “The Postman” (it won a Hugo in 1983) than the novel, which I could only skim. Things always seem to get out of hand in the last third of a Brin novel, and The Postman has an exceptionally bad case of that.

    I am not as fond of Brin as most older fans; he has always struck me as a gadfly who writes fun adventure and pastoral sf novels (when they don’t go over the top!), but one who stayed to the shallows of the ocean of philosophy and history, unwilling to do the work of learning to navigate them.

    BTW, from my partial reading of the novel, my impression is that the rigid radical feminist leader of the novel was modeled fairly closely on 1970s radical feminists who Brin knew personally. If anything, it seems to me the character may not have been fictionalized enough; somewhere, there may someone who remembers Brin as “the man who wrote me into a novel and made me look like a total monster.”

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    • Joachim Boaz says:

      ” Things always seem to get out of hand in the last third of a Brin novel” — the understatement of the year! The last third of The Kiln People stretches a final two or three chapter descent into the metaphysical and beyond and beyond and beyond (blargh) climax in a regular book over hundreds of pages. Sheer agony.

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  8. […] a big break, I returned with a review of David Brin’s The Postman (1985). I’m incapable of awarding stars, but let’s say it’s halfway between blah […]

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  9. […] The Postman by David Brin – In the post-apocalyptic dystopia of the near-future United States, a guy finds an abandoned mail truck and decides to deliver some mail, resulting in a threading together of the sparse and suspicious survivor communities, while he propagates the myth of the United States. He also fights bad guys. It’s yet another neat idea from Brin that would be better handled by a stronger writer. […]

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