The year is 2012, but the book was written in the mid 80’s so its focus is the near future. In that future nuclear war has devastated the Earth which endured a three year nuclear winter resulting the the collapse of civilization. Gordon Krantz has been making his way west across America for almost two decades keeping a journal as he travelled. He remembers things as they were before the fall. He’s educated and still idealistic, even after all these years. He works his way through small camps as a baird, telling stories and singing songs. The story opens with him suffering a highway robbery and losing all his possessions, including the journal. He manages to find an old postman’s uniform which he wears simply for warmth. He encounters the peaceful town of Pine View who take him in temporarily. He regales them with his tales and thoroughly entertains them. But as he prepares to depart he begins to realize that the townsfolk actually take him for a postman. His uniform invokes warm remembrances in the folk who remember times before the Doomwar. To the younger generation, he brings hope of outside contact. Some even provide him letters for long lost friends and family he may encounter on this westward travels. Gordon doesn’t exactly correct their misconception, thinking it would be rather heartless to extinguish their faint embers of hope. The next town he encounters is more guarded so his con begins in earnest in order to gain entry. He claims to be a Postal Inspector for the Restored United States sent to reestablish communications across the country. Used to acting and having prepared fake papers and letters beforehand he successfully gains access to the town. By now his lie is in full effect and he once again leaves town burdened with more (real) letters for his next stop.
What begins as an act of pure survival (donning the uniform), metamorphosizes into the fully developed con of the Restored United States via an innocent misconception and Gordon’s own idealism. Several times throughout the book Gordon is caught in life threatening situations (who will take responsibility). Prior to wearing the postal uniform he always did the sensible thing. Never be a hero, don’t pick fights, keep out of sight. However several times, despite little voices telling him otherwise, Gordon faces down this enemies by wielding his big lie. The lie becomes an important source of hope for others and this hope prevents him from revealing the truth.
Gordon faces the lie of another – the servants of Cyclops. Cyclops is the last remaining AI computer which is operational and helping humanity rebuild. However Gordon discovers the ruse, that Cyclops was destroyed long ago and only human scientists keep the myth alive, much like the Wizard of Oz. Like his own lie, the promise of Cyclops brings its own hope and he chooses not to expose the perpetrators.
Near the end Gordon is captured by Holn survivalists who are at war with the other towns. As a leader he is given a choice to surrender the town and become a Holnist baron to run it for the survivalists or face execution. It is a difficult decision. Gordon is well aware that that his own Williamette Army of farmers is no match for them and would surely lose, resulting the the complete razing of the town and enslavement of the townsfolk. Furthermore the Holnists also knew there is no Restored United States since they retrieved his journal, and therefore were immune to his big lie. However this huge decision, which could have gone either way since Gordon was both idealistic and a hardened practiced survivor, is never made. Gordon is rescued and spared from the dilemma. In a way I felt cheated out of an opportunity for major insight into Gordon’s character.
Women, their treatment and station comes up frequently. Men outnumber women, so women are valued. The Holnists and other survivalists treat women as possessions and slaves. Townsfolk treat women more equally, but their roles are domestic. Only Adele, the mayor of Pine View and Dena the intelligent but eclectic academic of Cornvallis with whom Gordon has a relationship break that mold (women also rescue Gordon from his huge decision). Dena is a feminist. Despite their relationship, Gordon is uncomfortable with Dena’s views. She and her all female scouts die fighting the Holnists and rescuing Gordon. Their act of defiance inspires women elsewhere to take a more equal stance in their affairs. They also prompt Powhatan to act. In the end the message seems to be that women have a role the keep men in check and to be their moral compass.
How would I improve this story? Difficult to say since it is well told. Perhaps the Holn General Macklin and Powhatan, the Squire of Sugarloaf Mountain who was the Holnist’s most powerful opposition need not have been Augments (physically augmented humans or superior strength and stamina). They could have been regular men. However as Augments they represented a last technological gasp before the collapse of civilization, with Powhatan being the more recent Augment – less power-hungry, less cruel. When Powhatan won the duel with Macklin it meant that there was hope that humanity’s quest for scientific progress was not always doomed to be ill-fated.
Despite the Holnists all but defeated, the towns united and a postal service in effect, Gordon keeps moving west. Ever since his tale of the Restored United States his story has forced him to keep moving to keep up pretenses and to keep up hope. He had considered simply approaching the next town without his uniform, but as time goes one, abandonment becomes harder since the letters he is carrying are real and no longer props.
In spite of the post-apocalyptic setting, The Postman is a hopeful tale. Gordon is a moral and likeable character. The feeling is that this new dark age will be brief, civilization will rebuild and humanity, having crawled back from the brink will enter a new renaissance, less likely to make the same mistakes of the past.
This is very much in contrast to Canticle for Leibowitz where the dark age lasts for centuries and once civilization is rebuilt the cycle of destruction starts anew.
(Amazon) The Postman