by David Brin
“It’s said that ‘power corrupts,’ but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable” ― David Brin, The Postman
In this post-apocalyptic tale we meet a survivor, Gordon Krantz, who on one fateful day dons a postman's uniform and goes on his way creating a myth of "The Postman" and "The Restored United States". The country in which he creates this myth is a future Oregon laid to waste like the rest of the United States by a "doomwar" and the attendant disruption of society and crumbling of civilization.
The Postman had been wandering without establishing himself anywhere, and performing scenes from William Shakespeare plays for supplies. Taking shelter in a long-abandoned postal van, he finds a sack of mail and takes it to a nearby community to barter for food and shelter. His initial assertions to be a real postman builds, not because of a deliberate fraud (at least initially), but because people are desperate to believe in him and the Restored United States.
"Gordon smiled. He held up the bundle in his hand and touched his cap with the other.
"Good evening, Mizz Horton. It's a lovely night, yes? By the way, I happen to have a letter here for you, from a Mr. Jim Horton, of Pine View, Oregon....He gave it to me twelve days ago...."
The people on the parapet all seemed to be talking at once. There were sudden motions and excited shouts. Gordon cupped his ear to listen to the woman's amazed exclamation, and had to raise his voice to be heard.
"Yes, ma'am. He seemed to be quite well. I'm afraid that's all I have on this trip. But I'll be glad to carry your reply to your brother on my way back, after I finish my circuit down in the valley."
He stepped forward, closer to the light. "One thing though, ma'am. Mr. Horton didn't have enough postage back in Pine View, so I'm going to have to ask you for ten dollars...C.O.D."
The crowd roared.
Next to the glaring lantern the figure of the Mayor turned left and right, waving his arms and shouting. But nothing he said was heard as the gate swung open and people poured out into the night. They surrounded Gordon, a tight press of hot-faced, excited men, women, children. Some limped. Others bore livid scars or rasped in tuberculin heaviness. And yet at that moment the pain of living seemed as nothing next to a glow of sudden faith." (pp 80-81)
As the story continues he encounters a community, Corvallis, Oregon, which is led by Cyclops, who is apparently a sentient artificial intelligence which miraculously survived the cataclysm. In reality, however, the machine ceased functioning during a battle and a group of scientists merely maintain the pretense of it working to try and keep hope, order, and knowledge alive.
Eventually, as the Postman joins forces with Cyclops' scientists in a war against an influx of "hyper-survivalist militia", he begins to find that the hyper-survivalists are being pressed from Oregon's Rogue River area to the south as well. The hyper-survivalists are more commonly referred to as Holnists, after their founder, Nathan Holn. Nathan Holn was an author who championed both violence and misogyny. Holn himself is said to have been executed sometime before the events in the novel, but in the time following what should have been a brief period of civil disorder.
The denouement includes battles and confrontations between those opposing the Holnists led by The Postman and the bands of Holnist renegades. Through all his adventures and battles Gordon wonders "Who will take responsibility" to defend civilization. Questioning his own motives in creating and maintaining the mythic Postman he realizes that those who believe in it and him depend on his leadership. It is the questions that Gordon asks himself and his bravery in helping those he meets along the way that I found most appealing in this excellent narrative. Brin's story-telling ability shines as he pictures a world that has lost almost all of the accouterments of modern civilization. It makes one ask the question: what would I do to survive when (almost) all is lost?
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