Sixteen years after an apocalyptic event that nearly destroyed all human life on the earth, civilization consists only of small groups of suspicious people who have managed to band together for safety. These communities are spread out and preyed upon by roaming bandits or groups of “survivalists” who follow a despotic leader.
Gordon Krantz has been struggling to survive by himself in the Oregon wilderness. He’s been hoping to find a community where he can fit in, but when bandits steal all his clothes and gear, he has nothing to offer in return for shelter. He’s in danger of dying from hunger and exposure until he stumbles upon the corpse of a United States postal worker and dons the dead man’s uniform.
Then he begins his scam; he presents himself to various towns and convinces them that he represents a newly formed United States government. He says he has a message to bring them from their new leaders and, as they feed and supply him, he lays down “laws” that he deems moral.
Soon Gordon is trapped in his lie. For his story to be believable Gordon has to keep moving — he can’t settle down. When he leaves each community, he takes the letters that hopeful people write to family members that are probably long dead. As his hoax continues and he travels back and forth between towns that are happily providing for him, Gordon is forced to cover himself by getting involved in community management, issuing decrees, setting up post offices, and hiring mailmen. Eventually Gordon becomes more than a conman and even more than an empty symbol of hope in the hearts of people who are in desperate need of hope; eventually Gordon becomes the man he’s pretending to be.
I liked The Postman when I read it as a teenager years ago and I liked it again when I recently re-read it in audio format. The story is appealing because it examines hope at both the national and personal levels. On the national level we have a fractured society with some groups of people who are trying to unite for protection and companionship but who have so far been unsuccessful because they’re constantly threatened by the gangs of opportunistic despots. Gordon’s fake identity offers the hope that someday a new democracy — a new United States — may be possible to achieve, not only through the hope, belief, and just plain survival of those who aren’t willing to be ruled by tyrants, but also through the organization, infrastructure, education, and literacy that Gordon’s “job” inspires.
On the personal level, David Brin gives us a conman who becomes the greatest kind of hero. Brin’s story is so believable and it offers each of us the personal hope that we can be somebody better just by pretending to be that better person until we actually achieve it.
If The Postman had focused only on the themes I’ve described so far, I might have thought it was a perfect novel. Unfortunately, Brin dilutes his great story by adding in some weird elements such as an artificial intelligence, genetically modified soldiers, and a group of crazy women who think they’re feminists. Too bad. Brin didn’t need all that stuff. It’s the story of the postman and the way he unwittingly begins to rebuild a nation that gives The Postman its power.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s 2012 production of The Postman which was read by David LeDoux who did a great job. Even with its problems, I recommend The Postman and urge you to try the audio version.