Novel * David Brin * Nuclear Post-Apocalypse * 1985
It’s not often I read a novel set in the area where I live. Considering the kind of fiction that I read the most, I guess this shouldn’t be surprising. Either I’m dealing with entirely fictional dystopian states or scenes of some kind of apocalypse, which tend to take place in much larger cities (so as to magnify the scope of destruction, you see). Also, the world is a big place, and unless you live in New York or London or something, odds are a story isn’t going to take place where you live. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I opened up The Postman to see the first section of the novel is called The Cascades. For reference, those are the big volcanic mountains that stand behind the city I live in. The rest of the story moves from Central Oregon into the Willamette Valley, but that’s okay because every tiny town that gets a mention, I’ve pretty much been to. All of this has very little to do with the quality of the book, obviously, but it would be disingenuous to not mention it. I imagine most people get a little thrill when they read a story featuring the names of places they know (unless they fuck it up, then god help the author).
The story begins the Ponderosa forests on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, and it begins with a desperate situation. The protagonist, with the very non-threating name of Gordon, is running for his life from some wasteland bandits. Gordon got himself ambushed, and he feels real dumb about it because he’s spent the last thirteen years as a wandering minstrel/bard and should have better survival instincts. To add insult to injury, the guys who jacked him are all super lame. This scene serves as our introduction to the post-apocalyptic world of The Postman. There was a nuclear war, but it was limited in scope. As such, the fearsome effects of nuclear winter only lasted thirteen years or so, instead of wiping out most of life on Earth. Unfortunately, the Doomwar (ha, okay, cool name) began with a savage round of EMP, which wiped out the vast majority of electronics in developed countries. This, coupled with the loss of several major American cities, resulted in social chaos. The biggest problem, we are told, is the plague of survivalist types who rallied behind an ideologue named Nathan Holn. This guy was basically advocating a return to feudalism based on a doctrine of masculine might-makes-right. These survivalists battled the groups trying to retain some semblance of civilization, and even though the baddies were reduced to living in isolated pockets, any national cohesion was lost in the fighting.
Gordon doesn’t die in the first chapter of the story. He escapes the bandits, and holes up in an abandoned jeep for the night, sharing his space with a spooky skeleton so as to not die of exposure on a mountainside. The following morning it turns out the skeleton used to be a – wait for it – postman. Now, Gordon makes his way through the world by trading. He finds a friendly(ish) settlement and puts on plays from memory, or sings, or whatever in exchange for food, a place to crash, and maybe some supplies. Struck by creative ingenuity, Gordon dons the postman’s clothing, picks up the abandoned mailbag, and makes for the next community. It is here, in a peaceful little village, that he begins his big act. Gordon is not really a postman, but he’s a decent enough actor. When he realizes that people are starved for something bigger than their small, independent village – something like the Restored United States – Gordon plays up his role. To be fair, Gordon never really intends to lie to people. The village just doesn’t give him much of a choice. Rather against his will, Gordon finds himself founding a mail route throughout the former state of Oregon. The process isn’t necessarily a smooth one.
The Postman is, in its heart, a novel about a wanderer coming to terms with his relationship with a devastated humanity. This is a common trope in apocalyptic fiction. I don’t say that as a negative, mind you, because it doesn’t matter if a story has been done before if it is told well. The Postman fares pretty well in this regard, as Gordon is a fairly engaging character whose predominant traits seem to be unrestrained idealism and a hefty dose of self-loathing. The latter bit gets a little tiresome after a couple hundred pages or so, but whatever. The other characters that pop up over the course of the narrative unfortunately don’t get the same treatment. Everyone on Gordon’s periphery tends to be a bit shallow, at least concerning their motivations and personalities. Maybe this is a byproduct of the environment (in which people hesitate to get to know each other because death is ever present), maybe this because of Gordon himself (who is always on the move), but regardless of the reason, none of the other characters seem to matter a whole lot. There is a point where Dena, Gordon’s love interest I guess, dies tragically. Gordon, as you might expect, is devastated. However, their relationship was barely developed, and the scenes they had together were brief and off-kilter. When Gordon thought about Dena at all, it was about how crazy she is. Oh, and they did a sex once. The result is that the reader has very little connection to this person, and her death reads as more of a shrug than having any real impact.
The failure to properly develop Dena is a disappointment, especially considering that it seems that Brin really wanted to have a conversation about feminism with this book. It’s a topic that comes up throughout Gordon’s travels, often in response to how women are treated in this post-apocalyptic world. As you might image, ladies have it rough when civilization falls. Even in the “good” communities, traditional gender roles are extremely rigid and inherently favor men. Brin pushes against this seeming inevitability in small ways at first, and ends the novel with a grand gesture. In the community of Pine View, where Gordon essentially begins his journey, traditional gender roles are the norm. While women are treated well, they’re still only really there to cook, clean, and reproduce. That said, Brin makes it exceedingly clear that the smartest person in the settlement is a Mrs. Thompson, who Gordon corresponds with throughout the rest of the novel. She’s responsible for setting up the education of the settlement, and you can see in the character of Abbey – the very definition of a Pretty Little Idiot – that Thompson’s ideas about the value of education are spreading to those too young to have ever attended school. Abbey might be a child-like dummy, but she is at least afforded aspirations.
Those women unfortunate enough to have been captured by survivalists are given no such aspirations. They’re chattel. They are used as slave labor to perform the very same functions as in Pine View: housekeeping and sex. The difference is obvious, of course, considering systematic torture and abuse don’t occur in the more civilized areas. Yet this is not enough to be considered equality. Enter Dena, who is smart, educated, and idealistic. She has grown up in a peaceful area in Corvallis, and she is the center of the book’s sense of feminism. Her whole thing is the desire for women to be an independent force to check the ambitions of irrational, aggressive men. I don’t know, the whole concept of feminism in The Postman is muddy at best, and it’s hard to take it as seriously as I imagine Brin would like us to. Gordon, our viewpoint to this entire endeavor, is clearly taken with Dena. Yet the vast majority of what Gordon says and thinks about Dena is negative. Her ideas are dismissed as “crazy” and he has what he feels to be legitimate concerns for her mental health. Dena’s big plan is to train women as scout-soldiers in the war against the survivalists, which I dunno, seems pretty cool to me. Yet for this she is pretty much dismissed as a mental invalid. Feminism!
All of this business about feminism is super confusing, because it really does seem like Brin is on the women’s side. Like he’s doing his best but just can’t seem to get out of his own way when it comes to describing why a woman like Dena should be a strong character. This is disappointing, because he does a much better job dealing with the theme of nationalism being a force for good (for once). In short, The Postman is describing the process of civilization rebuilding itself. In order for this to happen, people need a symbol of something larger than any one individual. In this case, it’s the postal service standing in for the United States. The mail is a symbolic connection before it is a practical one, and Gordon is its reluctant leader, who become a focus of idealism despite himself. All of this is pretty clearly communicated throughout the novel, to the point of being a little on the nose sometimes. It’s a shame The Postman couldn’t summon the same amount of quality to engage with what I think is a more interesting avenue of thought about the post-apocalypse.