Friday, April 18, 2014

Fiction Friday (27)

The time has come again where I've finished reading a novel and would like to share my thoughts. This week's book is of particular interest to me as I recently took a part-time job with United States Postal Service. Given that fact I figured it was about time I read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years. It was given to me as a slight joke by my good friend, with whom I suffered through Kevin Costner's three and half hour film adaptation nearly twenty years ago. However, I knew the book was supposed to be good, and seeing as how I am now a "postman" it seemed worthy of a read, and indeed it was. Enjoy.

The Postman by David Brin
(Spectra, 1985)

Dystopian fiction before it became a fad was usually more interested in survival than the current theme of love in the face of insurmountable odds. The Postman is a story of surviving, not just the survival one individual, but the survival of a cultural spirit. Set in the state of Oregon, two decades after a Doomwar has torn apart the fabric of society and left its shreds to flap in the breeze, the novel plays out one of the fundamental conflicts of human civilization; primitivism vs. progressive.

The story begins with an attack. Gordon, an intelligent and resourceful survivor, is robbed of all the possessions that he needs to keep him alive as night begins to set in the mountains. Desperate, knowing that he won't survive the night, he pursues the band of robbers in the hopes of making a last ditch attempt to get his gear back and live another day. While trying to find their camp, he is led off track and ends up coming across something more valuable than he could possibly imagine. At first, the old U.S. Mail truck is simply a shelter, its bags of mail become blankets from the cold, and the dead skeleton's uniform is a mere substitute for the gear that was stolen.

Gordon only discovers the symbolic power of these items once he enters the next town on the other side of the mountains, a relatively stable and peaceful community that mistakes him for a postman from a nation they thought no longer existed. Despite Gordon's honesty about how he come in possession of the items, the people latch onto the ideal, even giving him letters to take to long lost family in towns to the West. As he travels from town to town, he quickly learns that his uniform, and the ever more elaborate myth he tells of The Resorted United States, are able to ease the hostilities of communities weary of strangers. Eventually he takes to setting up Post Offices in the places he passes through, appointing postmasters and inadvertently establishing a mail system between the communities.

The Post Office is a wonderful symbol for civilization. It represents the idea of free communication, and communication is the key to a greater purpose and the basis of forming larger communities. The myth quickly grows beyond Gordon's control and he suffers from guilt as he realizes he's giving people hope where perhaps none is warranted. This become painfully clear when the new larger community he's developed is faced with fighting off an invasion of the barbaric hoard known as Holnists, followers of a pre-war survivalist and his primitive teachings. Their epic battles take on the metaphor of good vs. evil in dramatic and powerful ways.

While the novel veers off course a little as it nears the end, getting bogged down in another sub-plot of the advantages and perils of technology, it manages to pull everything together nicely in the end. This is that rare kind of book that mixes action with profound intellectual ideas. A thoroughly enjoyable read that leaves you with much to think about.

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