July 18, 2014

Friday Review: The Postman

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on.

You can lead with all new lines
If you believe in what you say
And life can be just as you make it

Believe the lie and it will all come true

Yeah, OK, so sometimes the lie is easier to tell than the truth.  But what happens when the lie is a noble one, one that (to borrow from The Simpsons) embiggens your fellow man?  And what happens if the lie gets out of control and takes on a life of its own?

That's the basic idea behind The Postman, by which I mean the lauded David Brin novel, not the critically savaged (hello Razzies!) Kevin Costner flick that sprang from it.  Gordon Krantz is not actually the titular postman - indeed, there are no such things in the post-apocalyptic world Brin lays out (in what is now our actual past). But he claims to be one, just to survive.  Then, shit happens.

Brin does an interesting thing in The Postman because instead of taking us through the apocalypse and the initial postlude of survival, he drops Gordon (and us) in 16 years after everything went to hell.  That's allowed the world to settle a bit, although it's settled into a world full of dangers, from mundane bandits to leftover pre-war survivalists with a philosophy that's very like Ayn Rand on steroids. It's while escaping from those kinds of bandits that Krantz comes upon an abandoned USPS truck, complete with dead driver inside.  He nicks the uniform purely for warmth and grabs a bag of mail for reading (and presumably other) material, no real intent to pull a scam on anybody.

The scam, such as it is, unfolds slowly and does require a bit of a stretch, that being that after nearly two decades of there being no such thing as the United States, much less the United States Postal Service, people are overwhelmed at the idea of getting mail service back.  Krantz's attempts to slip away from the first small town he comes to are complicated by people trying to pay him to take letters for them.  From there, Krantz builds an entire facade of being an official of the Restored United States and begins to forge some connections between the scattered Oregon settlements.

That's part one, in which Krantz falls into and embraces his scam.  Part two adds a nice twist.  He comes to the town of Corvallis (home of Oregon State University and a prime location for the post-apocalyptic Dies the Fire series), where society seems to be holding on pretty well and surging toward a brighter future.  It's precisely the kind of place Krantz has been looking for all these years, a place to settle down and help rebuild the world, but he's now trapped by his own lie.  He's unable to give up the postman game because of how much the lie has taken root behind him.  Thrown in another nice twist in the form of a still functional (maybe) super computer and this middle section of the book is a highlight.

The third part (perhaps not coincidentally, the part that wasn't originally published in stand alone form)doesn't fare so well.  There's an invading army of Randians threatening the struggling civilization, which Krantz decides to stay behind and fight, rather than flee.  Which is a shame, because when the big showdown comes - between genetically enhanced soldiers who have played no real part up to this point - he's watching from the sidelines.  Add in a weird bit of extremist feminism that seems more like parody than anything else and the book ends with a bit of a thud.

Naturally, this being Brin, it ends on an uplifting (ha!) sentiment.  He's big on science fiction as an inherently positive endeavor, showing how mankind will keep on keeping on in the future.  It's a hard fit for a post-apocalyptic tale, so it has to at least suggest that happy days are on the way to being here again.  Having said that, there's at least enough uncertainty in the world of The Postman to not make it feel like a cop out.

The Details
The Postman
by David Brin
Published 1985
Winner Locus Award, Aurthur C. Clarke Award

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