Review of The Postman by David Brin
by David Brin
My copy of The Postman is battered, well-read, and much loved. It's a movie tie-in Bantam paperback that I found at a used bookstore, the pages ever so slightly yellowed, the cover worn, its top corner ever so slightly curling up in a dog's ear. It fits perfectly with the atmosphere that David Brin creates. This is not a book to be treated delicately or reverently; it is meant to be read, re-read, enjoyed, and explained.
As good fiction, and science fiction, is wont to do, The Postman made me think. The central theme of this book is how humanity depends on myths to survive, and that these myths are always exaggerated and perhaps even, at their core, false. What matters is not their truthfulness but that they provide hope and inspire people to do great things, something Gordon Kranz discovers when he singlehandedly re-establishes the U.S. Mail service in Oregon and hails the coming of the "Restored United States."
Brin does not proselytize this theme subtly, but that's OK. It probably shouldn't be subtle, because it's such a fundamental part of the fabric of our society—perhaps the U.S. more so than my Canada, but every country has its founding myths. John A. MacDonald's "National Dream," anyone? We codify, honour, and embellish these myths (or in the case of my example, we pay Pierre Berton and the CBC to do it for us); upon these myths, we build our national identities and ideologies. The Postman reminds us that it behoves us to remember this fact. Myths are not, in and of themselves, bad—if we take Gordon's dream featuring Benjamin Franklin playing chess with a supercomputer at face value, it would seem that myths are necessary for the preservation of a stable, just nation. Nevertheless, we must tread carefully, lest myth cross that line from useful propaganda to Big Lie.
Playing the role of antagonists in The Postman, the Holnists follow the writings of anarchist survivalist Nathan Holn. The strong survive and the weak obey—or perish. Holn rises to popularity prior to the apocalyptic "Doomwar" (which is a really cheesy name) with a book that employs what Gordon calls "the Big Lie" technique:
Just sound like you know what you're talking about—as if you're citing real facts. Talk very fast. Weave your lies into the shape of a conspiracy theory and repeat your assertions over and over again. Those who want an excuse to hate or blame—those with big but weak egos—will leap at a simple, neat explanation for the way the world is. Those types will never call you on the facts.
This is obviously rhetoric on Brin's part against what he sees in politics in 1985. That it still rings true twenty-five years later is not surprising; as long as we have some form of society, post-apocalyptic or not, those who tell Big Lies will stay with us.
Just as we remember the myths, we have to remember the treacherous nature of Big Lies. The Postman is a repetitive lesson in critical thinking. Gordon plays the role of both deceiver and deceived, providing an excellent example of why myths can both help and harm. Everything in this postapocalyptic Oregon is wrapped in myth: the Restored United States, the philosophy of the survivalists, the truth behind the Cyclops supercomputer, Dena's militant feminists, etc. Nothing is what it appears to be.
I loved this book for the first three quarters. After Willamette Valley faces invasion by the survivalist, the quality of the book suffers. In particular, I didn't too much care for Brin's portrayal of Dena and her feminist ideals. They were straw feminists. Brin gives a slightly better treatment of this subject in Glory Season. As far as feminism in The Postman goes, however, you're better off ignoring this theme.
The climax and denouement do not give this book the resolution it deserves. The final chapter is both heartening and somewhat cliché—but probably necessary. Despite this, Gordon is different at the end of the book; events have changed him, for better or worse. So while I can't celebrate the particulars of the narrative, I can commend the changes they bring about in the characters. Gordon is a protagonist whom we can admire and even aspire to be. At the same time, he is fallible, and sometimes he lets us down. He may be the last "Twentieth Century idealist" in a twenty-first century wasteland, but that makes him perfect for his role as hero.
The Postman endures because it captures a story that is eternal to the human condition: the necessity of the myth, and the dangers of the Big Lie. As far as science fiction goes, it lacks most of the tropes. It takes refuge in the typical post-apocalyptic milieu and adds the merest hint of artificial intelligence and a dash of eugenics to the mix. But what it lacks in pomp and circumstance it makes up for in the persistence of its theme. The Postman is a myth unto itself, and one I heartily recommend.