THE POSTMANA novel by David Brin
(1985, Bantam Spectra)
A man crossing devastated America trying to find civilization, instead finds himself a symbol of hope after donning a postman's uniform.
-- First reading (ebook)
A good read, full of introspection, social commentary, and a reluctant hero whose lies turned into the biggest truth of all -hope for a better future. I liked the character, the story and the way the book was written.Spoiler review:
I've wanted to read this novel since I first saw the movie, before I started writing movie reviews. Although it didn't do well in the theatre, the story and message intrigued me, and I thought it was a good movie, even though I'd never heard of the novel. This a rare instance where the movie inspired me to read the book!
The setting is one I've read about time and again, from Eternity Road to The Hunger Games (yes, I had to get that in there -can't wait to see that movie!). The world has been devastated due to war, and in this case, a series of unfortunate events, such as biological weapons in Asia, which drifted over to North America, and hoarding of food and medical supplies when the nuclear bombs landed in the east, as well as Nathan Holn, an extremist who took advantage of the situation to create fear and an every-man-for-himself ideology. All together, that fragmented the USA into little hamlets that tried to stay safe, walled cities with corrupt mayors who out of fear shoot strangers on sight, and roving bands of people who have thrown out any morals they used to have, in order to survive.
But Gordon Krantz is different. He was a soldier trying to defend food storage when chaos erupted, so bad that the army disbanded because there was nobody left to give orders. But he is an idealist, and he has traveled from the east coast through to Oregon searching for any sign of real civilization. All he has found so far is isolationist groups, small towns where he trades tales and theatrical productions for food and bed, and roaming gangs that rob and kill. It is one of the latter that takes all of his possessions while he was resting and eating one night in the mountains. Because they took even his boots, he decided to follow them to their hideout and try to take his stuff back. But he miscalculated, and instead stumbled upon an old postal truck, where he took refuge for the night. I really enjoyed this misdirection, as he tried to get closer to the thieves, he always found himself farther away. When he thought he spotted their cave, he despaired when he nearly stumbled into a pane of glass, assuming this was actually their hideout, when in fact it turned out to be the postal truck.
The postal uniform and hat he took from the long-dead driver changed his life. The next town he visited was in awe of him, and sat through two of his Shakespeare renditions, which he admitted were pretty bad. The uniform was a symbol of something special, something that showed a structure larger than they were, that there was a world out there beyond their little town. They even set him up with a woman who was trying to get pregnant, though her husband was sterile. He did enjoy that fully, though he felt a little guilt due to the circumstances.
And in this town, he remembered the old ways for them, and they decided to open a school again, to relearn some of the things that the people of the land had forgotten. And they wrote letters for the next town he was going to visit. This made Gordon uncomfortable, but he went along with his lies, lest Abby and the others hate him for it, especially if he ever returned to this area. And in the next town, his lies grew, to encompass his version of the Restored United States. And so he started setting up post offices in the various towns, and people wrote letters to people they didn't even know, and suddenly there was a little more hope in the world. And so Gordon spread his lies to the people, and they believed because they wanted to believe. The postal network grew, and Gordon made laws about the postal service, and how people were supposed to behave, and have elections, and so on.
The novel built up this scenario little by little, such that it is completely believable. Because Gordon is an idealist who still believes that people can do good, and he believes in the cause he is unwittingly spreading, he is a catalyst for people to do good, and for them to spread the cause themselves.
In one village, he encounters working technology. As the book was written in the early 1980s, the computer game is some sort of Space Invaders, and of course the kids have no idea what they are watching as the aliens drop from the top of the screen to the bottom. But Gordon does remember, and he coaxes the truth out of them. So Gordon traces the electronics to their source, Cyclops, an artificial intelligence computer in a university town. The people trade their old electronics, scoured from abandoned buildings, as well as a little food for the caretakers, for advice on how to conduct their daily lives.
That, too, ends up being a lie, as convincing as Gordon's Restored United States, but he keeps their secret that the sentient computer died during the wars, as the subterfuge is definitely helping the community. And of course there is Dena, who is obsessed with the old world, and seduces Gordon.
But there is trouble on the horizon, as the Holnist survivalists are planning to invade. They have been kept at bay in the south of the former state by another group of people who seem to have retained a little civility. As more Holnist scouts come across the river, Gordon goes to meet with that other group, and ask for help. George Powhatan is their fearless leader, but he wants nothing more than to stay out of the big picture, satisfied with the small community he has set up, and not wanting more responsibility.
On the way back north, almost empty-handed, Gordon's group is ambushed, and though a few escape, Gordon and one other are taken captive; most others are killed. Thus we get to see the other, brutal side of the new civilization on this continent. They call themselves free, but it is only the very small number in power who are free, and they aren't, really -they have to watch their backs for the next usurpers, of course. The leaders are actually augmented soldiers, unstable in mind, but thriving in this post-war world. They and the people who followed them into anarchy were the ones that prevented a recovery from the war when the post-apocalyptic plagues followed.
The key to turning the tide back toward civilization turns out to be the women. In this world, woman have no power at all. Men have taken charge, and women are treated as spoils of war, possessions, except in small communities where men remember how to be descent, and actually love. But Abby shows right from the start the kind of power women have over men. Gordon thinks it is a bad idea, but she seduces him anyway. Mrs. Thompson of that same community decides to open the school. In another village, it is an old woman who responds to the call of Gordon's mail, letters he picked up at the abandoned town post office, which gains him admittance, against the advice of the mayor.
And then there is strong-headed Dena, born before the war, but not old enough to remember it. She is actually a large part of the team in charge of Cyclops, and she leads a group of women who essentially become amazons, using their sexuality to gain access to places most people couldn't. When Gordon leaves to go find help, Dena takes it upon herself to infiltrate the camps of the enemies, using sex to get close to them, and planning to kill all of the leaders on the same night.
The plan fails miserably, and the women are raped and killed. Yet the actions of these women turn into legend, and the women call for action from their men, and in Oregon, the women start to take charge.
Gordon escapes due to the efforts of two woman slaves from the Holnist camp, who never thought there might even be a glimmer of a different life "out there". They ask to be brought to this new world, and Gordon, of course, can't refuse. The fate that awaits them among the Holnists is a tragic one. They are caught by the augments, but George Powhaten shows up, revealing that he, too, is an augment, but of a different, more stable, generation. He manages to kill the augment leader, and the tide of the war is somewhat turned.
The book doesn't end with a victory, but with hope. There is the soldier from California, indicating a kind of civilization fighting against the Holnists from that direction. Victory is not assured, but it looks possible. And everywhere, the women are taking their fate into their own hands. They start the book as victims, but end up stronger. We don't get to witness this firsthand, but we don't really need to. The important part is the hope, and the symbols that brought that hope.
That's what the story is about, hope and taking charge. People lived for almost two decades isolating themselves from other communities, and being afraid. Now one person in a uniform shows up, making them realize the activities they have been participating in are less than honorable, and even the good ones are being selfish. All it takes is a little nudge and a lot of persistence -and a symbol to hold it all together. And that is the power of this story. Truly enjoyable.
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