Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Subject: Review: The Postman
Date: Wed, 8 Sep 2004 20:14:18 +0000 (UTC) Message-ID: <chnp6q$q6$>

_The Postman_, by David Brin, published in parts in 1982 and 1984. Contemporaneous with The Colour of Magic and 4-6 years before Stirling's Marching Through Georgia.

I hadn't read this before; I started it last night and read it pretty much straight through. I don't think of it has a great novel, but it was fun. I may have been pulled along less by the writing and more by wanting to find out what happened next, but hey, whatever works.

Thematically, it's late Pratchett vs. S. M. Stirling, done like neither. Actually, "vs." Stirling is unfair, given his time-travelling Nantucket. Let me explain.

The world of the book is post-apocalyptic, but twisted a bit. There was a midrange nuclear exchange and nuclear winter, yes, but that didn't end civilization by itself. There were plagues, but those didn't do it either. There were people blocking the roads in fear, thus preventing the food and the medicines from swapping places usefully, and that almost did it, but not quite. No, what did in the US was the Draka. Or the Chosen, from the Stirling/Drake epnonymous novel. Or the Men of Gor.

More precisely, it was "survivalists". But not your innocuous paranoid survivalists like Bert in "Tremors". No, these were "Holnists", followers of Nathan Holn, preacher of a quasi-Nietzschean/Spartan macho superman prove-you're-superior-by-killing-someone-else philosophy, people who believed they were superior to effete weak civilization and set out to prove it. They turned out to be dead wrong, but they dragged rebuilding civilization down with them.

(A weakness of the worldbuilding which I didn't think of while reading is: what about the rest of the world? If the US almost made it, what about Canada and Mexico and Europe and Australia? Europe might have been extra-hit by the Enemy, but Australia should be on shortwaves, shouldn't it? Oh well.)

This slips up to Brin's theme. He has a lot of confidence in communities of mostly well-meaning people operating with optimism and trust. A few bombs or plagues or climatic disasters would just get Americans scrambling to rebuild; it took the quadruple whammy of all three plus macho assholes to bring things down, especially with the assholes destroying the intercommunity trust you need to recover from all the other stuff. And this is why I invoked "late Pratchett": the book is largely about all that, plus the power and necessity of binding myths, of the stuff we make up. Pratchett tells us that justice and fairness and such aren't real, they aren't in the world; we make up them up and in doing so give them reality. And so, in turn, a myth of the US rebuilds communities in Brin's world.

Pratchett uses a satirical fantasy world, while Brin just gives this to us straight in our own world (and even more directly in speeches and essays.) This feels preachy, but I think that's actually unfair. Brin's not all that preachy, it's just that we're not used to someone liberal/libertarian telling us what's good about American culture. Even "hey, we kind of do rock, you know?" sounds too much like "YO! WE RULE!" to oversensitive ears.

Anyway, on to more of a plot summary, for the non-spoilerphobic or those who have read it:

The book starts in 2009, 17 years after everything went bad. Gordon is trying to get the hell away from St. Paul, and has been slowly moving west, living as a forager or travelling entertainer; he's finally made it almost to Oregon. He gets ambushed and loses almost all of his stuff, but stumbles across a mail truck... from a couple of years after the War. This conveniently replaces his radiation detector, but also testifies to the post-War rebuilding efforts. He takes the cap, jacket, and bags of mail with him, and gets mistaken for a mailman at the next town, an impression he never quite dispels. The town after that is a minor feudal nightmare, and he ends up playing the role of postman and Federal Inspector just to stay alive. In both towns, mere belief in what he represents, some larger civlization Out There, inspires people to look beyond survival and get their lives in order. This ends up drafting him into continuing the role, and pretending to act for a "Restored United States" acting out of St. Paul, and spreading post offices and restoration through Oregon like Johnny Appleseed.

Note the levels. Inspiration and enthusiasm help people actually do stuff. Mails, and any accompanying trade, are a real good in themselves. Gordon himself is not a Visionary single-handedly doing all this; he's basically been pushed into the role by the beliefs of the people he's run into, and acts as a catalyst; he doesn't do much himself besides act.

Then we run into one of two surprisingly SF elements in what had been a standard post-WWIII setting. Gordon's myth of a restored US (and his real mail restoration) runs into the myth of a superintelligent computer spreading down from the north. The computers were actually real, before the War, and were just the thing you'd want for the situation. Unfortunately, they didn't actually survive (at least, not here), but people think this one did, and that spreads an aura of calm and trust and peace throughout the land. Not entirely healthily so, since they're counting on the computer to save their bacon in a crisis. But the two myths manage to cooperate.

Then the surviving Holnists invade, giving us an up-close look at them. Also at a semi-cultish Strong Man who's been able to resist them, and is adored by his community, and refuses to come down off his mountain to help others. Brin, like Pratchett, doesn't like kings and wizards, not ones who sit secure in their superiority and aren't useful.

We get the second SF element: the Holnist leaders are US military augmented soldiers (think cyberpunk, or Shadowrun). We also get more authorial testimony to the superior power of civilization: despite their augments, and bluster, and genunine superiority in one-on-one combat, the Holnists are getting their asses kicked by some mysterious Californian polity, which would be why they're invading Oregon. "We're not running away, we're, uh, invading someone else, yeah."

There's also a whole feminist subplot late in the book which I won't try to do justice to, though it connects with stuff in Brin's speeches about the Cherokee women picking which males got to be leaders.

So. The back cover says "as urgently compelling as _Alas, Babylon_, which I basically don't remember, except that the Secretary of Education ended up as acting-President. I don't know that The Postman is urgently compelling. But I like optimism, and this is a nice instance of it, even if hardly the most polished.

Stars: Alpha Centauri and Alicia Silverstone out of 4.
Damien Sullivan