The Postman by David Brin (1985) 385 p.

This 1985 post-apocalyptic novel by David Brin is probably better known for the 1997 film adaptation starring Kevin Costner. Apparently it was widely considered terrible, but I haven’t seen it. The book is bad for its own reasons.

Seventeen years after a vague world war which involved both nuclear and biological weapons, causing civilisation to almost completely fall apart, a drifter named Gordon comes across an old US Postal Service truck with a mouldering mailman inside, and some undelivered bags of letters. He takes the uniform for warmth, but finds as he travels that people respond well to it; it reminds them of their old lives and makes them pine for the days of organised government. Being something of an actor and a conman himself, Gordon makes use of this and begins to pose as a representative of the “Restored United States,” trading letters between towns in exchange for hospitality. As his amateur postal network grows, the guilt about his lies begins to gnaw at him – but also raises the philosophical question of whether something is still false if enough people come to believe it and make it happen.

All this stuff is fine. It’s a relatively well-drawn apocalyptic landscape, the scenario it raises is interesting, and Gordon himself is a fairly sympathetic character. The writing is a bit clunky, but that’s what you expect from a popular science fiction writer. But two things rubbed me the wrong way about The Postman.

The first is the ultimate direction of the plot, which turns into a battle for supremacy between Gordon’s network of semi-civilised towns and a fascist survivalist militia. This is a fairly sudden swerve in narrative direction; Gordon’s fears and doubts about his nascent communications network pretty much go out the window as the story turns into a tedious good vs evil conflict. The militia itself is known as the “Holnists,” named after their initial leader, Nathan Holn. This name manages to feel both boring and unrealistic – I tried for a while and couldn’t come up with any modern organisations named after their founder. (Adherents to a philosophy, sure, like Reaganites or Maoists, but not coherent organisations. It’s the little things.) The ending goes completely off the rails, with the most brazen deus ex machina I’ve read in some time.

The second thing that bothered me was Brin’s attitude towards women, which is best described as… problematic. It’s not that it’s sexist, exactly. It’s actually fairly sincere and well-meaning. But it’s also downright laughable and embarrassing.

The Postman begins with the fairly standard scenario of the apocalypse having regressed humankind into a more primitive, feudal state, in which women’s rights have mostly been swept back by the tide of events. This is a realistic enough assumption, in my opinion, but you can’t help but sigh by where Brin takes it. In the first village in which Gordon poses as a postman, a nubile young woman comes to his bed at night and explains that she thinks her husband is sterile, so it would be ever so kind of Gordon to try to impregnate her. (A male fantasy: all the sex and none of the consequences.) I mention this minor event because it’s a harbinger of things to come, as Gordon later encounters a feminist character who introduces the bizarre notion that women are responsible for the evil men of history because they didn’t realise they’d be evil with female intuition and drown them at birth… or something like that? And then a bunch of women get themselves killed in a honeypot plan to try to take out the top Holnist leadership, knowing that they’ll fail but just wanting to spark a legend for future women? Or something? I don’t know. It’s utterly crazy, and by this point the entire book is starting to come apart, so it just becomes part of the general background noise of craziness.

In the afterword, Brin doesn’t fail to thank his inspiration for his philosophical musings:

And finally, my thanks to those women I’ve known who have never ceased to startle me, just when I’ve grown complacent and need to be most startled, and who make me stop and think.

There is power there, slumbering below the surface. And there is magic.

Look, I’m sure he’s a very nice guy. But – and to be fair, you could probably say this about a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors, even today – he clearly needed to spend less of the 1970s and 1980s in the company of other nerdy men.

I can’t recommend The Postman – not because of its attitude towards women, which is more fascinating than anything else, but because the story falls apart in the second half and fails to live up to its more interesting premises. Brin nonetheless struck me as having talent in the traditionally fun areas of science fiction, like worldbuilding, even if he fell down a little on stuff like dialogue, characterisation and ultimate resolution of plot. (But who among 1980s science fiction writers would dare cast the first stone?) I’ll still try some of his space opera stuff, like the Uplift series.