Literature: The Postman

Who is going to take responsibility?

America has been left in ruins in the wake of the Doomwar, a conflagration of various doomsday scenarios. Seventeen years later, Gordon Krantz, who was a college sophomore before it all came down, struggles to survive in a harsh environment where scavenging and violence is the norm and the vicious, fanatical Holnists reign supreme. He has been searching and searching for a place, anywhere, where "someone is taking responsibility." When he is robbed of most of his possessions, Gordon takes the uniform of a long-dead postman for warmth. The simple act of taking up this symbol soon snowballs into an elaborate tale casting Gordon as an agent of the fictional Restored United States. At first, he maintains this lie only to survive, but as hope springs up in his path, the lie becomes something more.

This 1985 novel by David Brin is most famous for an adaptation made 12 years later that nearly killed Kevin Costner's career.

This book provides examples of:

  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Holnists, who firmly believe that the strong should rule the weak, the only possible law is the law of jungle and idealism is only good for retarded kids.
  • Action Girl: Dena and her Scouts.
  • Action Survivor: Gordon, who most of the time just barely survives.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The book ends with the Postman departing to find and make contact with The Republic of California.
  • After the End
  • Amazon Brigade: Dena's Army Scouts. They are almost entirely wiped out after a failed plot to infiltrate and sabotage the Holnists.
  • America Saves the Day: In a sense. In that the Restored United States of America ultimately becomes very much real.
  • Apocalypse How: Continental/Societal Collapse. Unusually, there was not one single cause of the Doomwar. In fact, humanity probably could have weathered the nukes, the electromagnetic pulses, and the bioengineered diseases if not for the predatory, hypersurvivalist Holnists who took advantage of the situation.
  • The Apunkalypse: The rule of law has collapsed After the End, and bands of toughs roam the countryside roughing people up.
  • Arc Words: "Who will take responsibility?"
  • Artistic License Gun Safety: Averted. Gordon never holds more than four bullets in his revolver, unless it's an emergency or it appears he's doomed. His gun is always secured in its holster. He takes a good care of it and always uses it with an accurate' two-hand grip.
  • Badass Normal: One of Gordon's comrades is a former Marine, and when both of The Dragons are killed off-page while hunting him, the Big Bad assumes that he is responsible. The second Dragon actually killed the Marine, and was killed in turn by George Powhattan.
  • Band of Brothers: Gordon's fellow militiamen. They have been dead for more than a decade when the story starts.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie / Lies to Children: Gordon the Postman and his Restored United States of America and Cyclops.
  • Becoming the Mask: Gordon and his Postal Inspector persona. He's very aware of that.
  • Black Comedy: The only comedy allowed. And it works.
  • Boring but Practical: Gordon's bow. But before he learned how to use it, it was Cool, but Inefficient.
  • Celibate Hero: Inverted. Gordon wasn't with any women not because he didn't want to be, but because there was no opportunity or suitable woman for a long while. When he's with Dena, he's more annoyed with her than aroused.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The diary Gordon loses in the beginning shows up toward the end in the hands of the Holnists, as does the person who stole it.
  • Cincinnatus: George Powhatan. And Gordon pities the person who tries to make him a king.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: A recurring theme, even if that power is the position of postman.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Nathan Holn, a bat-shit insane nutcase. Everyone, including people born after the Doomwar (and thus lacking any serious education), wonder how he could get any support for his ideas.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • Gordon finding the postal van while trying to catch up with robbers who just mugged him. It helps in both the short and long term - first providing shelter and clothes, then giving him a perfect U.S. Postal Carrier disguise. This is also an example of the Anthropic Principle, as Gordon finding the van and needing to wear the outfit is what starts the story.
    • Gordon finding Dena after being recaptured by Holnists, moments before she expires in his arms.
  • Crazy Homeless People: Gordon perceives himself as such, since he can find no other logical explanation than insanity for his optimism in this Crapsack World.
  • Crazy Survivalist: The "Holnist Survivalists"; it's explicitly noted that after everything fell apart, Holn himself was dragged out and lynched for getting them started. And that the Holnists forever tainted the term "survivalist".
  • Deadpan Snarker: Who else but Gordon? It often borders on Sad Clown, as he's fully aware how miserable the situation is or can get.
  • Divided States of America: So much that there are no states to divide; a small hamlet is considered quite a big deal.
  • Double Meaning Title: Postman, as a mail carrier and a person living after some event. Gordon is both.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Dena is quite forcible with Gordon. It seems to keep on going for a while and he's forced to simply endure her.
  • The Drifter: Gordon's ultimate role, after he finally embracess The Call.
  • Dumb Muscle: Survivalists in general. So dumb that a brick is brighter.
  • Eagleland: Curious case - Type I with all it's liberty, equality and peaceful ways is contrasted with Type II for its paranoia, gung-ho attitude, over-the-top individualism and extremism.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Holnists, but only if you are male.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: BIG time; Holnists are completely unable to comprehend anything that is not made or achieved by brute force or how men are supposed to be equal.
  • Evil Gloating:
    • The robbers from the first few pages do it for extra dog-kicking points.
    • Holnists are generally prone to this; the higher their rank, the more they gloat.
  • Fake-Real Turn: Gordon made up the Restored United States and its postal services, but as he travels and recruits more postmen to his cause, the lie becomes more and more real.
  • First-Person Smartass: Gordon's consciousness works this way.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: True-blue postal carriers vs. camouflaged Holnists.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy:
    • ...and lazy, as invoked by Gordon as he easily approaches Oakridge and bypasses its guards right until he reaches the main gate.
    • Subverted later on, when he is captured by the Holnists for the second time. He manages to climb on a beam his hands were tied to, but first thing Colonel Bezoar does is look in that direction the moment he realises Gordon is missing.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: It's hinted that the Soviet Union survived until the Doomwar or was topped by violent revolution right before it. The war took place in the mid-90's.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: From a loner faking a postal system to a war involving superhuman experiments!
  • The Hero's Journey: The book uses this plot structure to great effect in a post-apocalyptic setting.
  • Heroic Neutral: George Powhatan feels he's done his share of fighting before, and it's up to Gordon to persuade him to take on the Holnists.
  • Honor Among Thieves:
    • As one of the general rules, Holnists do not take retribution for slayed comrades - by their philosophy, if you managed to kill one of them, you are a Worthy Opponent.
    • People tend to share their loot if they find it together... sometimes. Otherwise they might as well kill you for it.
  • Hope Bringer: The Postman himself.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal:
    • The seasons in which the action takes place are related with this trope. In the first section, it's autumn, where everything is dying. Then the action fast-forwards toward early spring, when Gordon starts setting his Postal Service and things are going smooth. Then the Holnists show up - right when autumn is about to start. The war against them takes place mostly in the winter, when nature is dead and animals struggle to survive. In the end, when Holnists are defeated and Gordon heads toward California, it's the beautiful spring of 2012.
    • Gordon's dream in the postal car, about a giant bird building itself a pyre and burning on it, after which the surrounding plants starts to sprout new leaves.
  • The Horde: Both the Holnists and the Anti-Tech Mob. At least the latter are a thing of the past.
  • Ignorant of the Call: Played with. Throughout the book Gordon is desperately looking for some strong figure to follow and help make things better, but when he starts his little postal scam, he's completely ignorant of the impact he has as exactly the type of person he was searching for. It completely freaks him out when things go way over any direct control and just keep snowballing further, forcing him to play the role of heroic figure and then slowly becoming one for real.
  • In Love with the Mark: Subverted. It's speculated that this could be the reason why Dena and the Scouts' plan to infiltrate the Holnists failed.
  • Instant A.I., Just Add Water: Averted. The pre-war AI computers were a step between real AI and standard mega-computer, build on specially designed processors and components. Only if running sufficiently long, they could reach true sentience going beyond ability to answer questions and solving equations on their own. Which makes Cyclops death even more shattering.
  • Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality: Gordon is a former sophomore of some sociology-themed major who was attending acting group in spare time back then... which helps him all the time in the postwar world.
  • Irony: After impressing inhabitants of Pine View, Gordon is hoping to stay there for a while or even settle with them - something he really wants to do. Instead, they decide to encourage him to further journey, so his grand plan is destroyed. The whole situations keeps on repeating itself each time he reaches new place suitable for settling down in his postal attire - the only one he owns. He keeps thinking about this even when the lie about the Restored United States snowballs into near-reality level.
  • I Want My Jet Pack: In book's timeline, humanity managed to build computers capable of reaching level of true AI, introduced two generations of cyborgs and was able to deploy military-grade laser weapon systems. All by mid 90's.
  • Just Following Orders: Inverted. Gordon is devastated, because he doesn't issue any orders for his men to follow - they choose by themselves to conduct many barbaric acts to later blame Holnists for them.
  • Keystone Army: Given how Holnists' ranks work, killing all of their high command in final chapter inevitably leads to their demise as an organized force. Without that unity they not only become easier targets, but it's also heavily implied they start fighting each other for command, every gorilla for himself.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Both Gordon and George Powhatan, who are so sour that it gives them wrinkles. The overarching motive in the story is their realization that the lofty ideas of pre-war world are all that's left worth living and standing for.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: The main reason Gordon managed to exceed the current life expectancy of thirty years old.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Roger Septien, the robber from the very first pages of the book, is eventually killed by Johnny when he and Gordon are escaping Holnists HQ, as he is unlucky enough to stand on guard in vital spot.
  • Life Will Kill You: It's never clearly stated, but apparently sizable chunk of militia unit Gordon was serving in died out of malnutrition and dental infections caused by low higiene. In fact, the death toll from those was bigger than from attacks they repelled.
  • Made a Slave: Anyone captured alive by Holnists. This also includes Sex Slaves.
  • Matriarchy: And a noble one - Pine View is guided by elderly Mrs Thompson. First chapter is much more prone to use tribalistic references and thus even narration calls her a matriarch few times.
  • Medal of Dishonor: Johnny is very thankful for Gordon's sharp mind and that little whistle... while Gordon was busy contemplating abandoning the whole unit and wasted a lot of time on thinking about it instead of acting and thus providing some real advantage.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: The two slaves that release Gordon and Johnny and help them escape.
  • Mundane Luxury: You know how bad the situation is when a handful of wild berries and a few short gulps of whiskey are considered a celebration-worthy delicacy.
  • Noodle Incident: The events before and right after the Doomwar are a long series of those. Things like "Slavic Resurgence", "Cuban problem", "Kenyan front", "Slavic-Turkic War" or "One-Week War" are only mentioned and never truly discussed. Because the past is not important - the present and future are.
  • Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: After spending last fifteen years on wandering through the wasteland, Gordon is still an easy target for bandits roaming around, but when compared to inhabitants of the Willamette Valley he is extremely experienced scavenger and scout, able to find holes in local defences on the fly or picking one by one small squads of Holnists.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Often invoked by different characters toward pre-war world. People tend to sing commercial jingles just to recall good old times.
  • Not Too Dead to Save the Day: Although they don't take direct action, all of Gordon's "ghosts" - Cyclops, Johnny Stevens, the Army Scouts, dream-Ben Franklin and his chess-playing stove, etc. - appear to encourage him toward the end.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: The Willamette Army on their own fallen, to convince the general public how horrible the Holnists are. Not that the Holnist themselves are saints - collecting genitals and ears of killed enemies is a standard procedure for them, just as rounding up the survivors for slavery and castrating males they perceive as weak.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Deconstructed. Being the most civic person in the whole Willamette Army and de facto commanding officer of it, Gordon is struggling under this role. He openly admits there are better candidates to lead men. And he realises how bad it is to be a gentle philosopher during the war with the worst kind of dishonorable, brutal scums he could stumble upon, but must maintain the strong-willed facade for the sake of morale.
  • One-Hit Kill: Justified, since Gordon punches Bezoar's jaw into his brain. And almost breaks his hand by doing it improperly.
  • One-Man Army: Augments both in their backstory and in-story serve this role quite literally, coming victorious and barely scratched when facing improbable odds. Also, George Powhatan's achievements are Shrouded in Myth, just like he as a person.
  • Only One Name: It's very easy to miss the fact that Gordon's surname is Krantz. Outside of Pine View, barely anyone addresses him with it.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: But it works, since Gordon is the only person knowing how he got himself the postman uniform. It's also reasonably downplayed early on, before the whole thing snowballed into becoming self-sustaining. Aside from the uniform, Gordon also forges few documents and has to rely on mail brought from Pine View to gain any real credibility - the uniform is only a sweetener to the hard evidence.
  • Precision F-Strike: As Gordon is about to leave Corvallis :
    "Survivalists!"
    He had one word to offer in reply.
    "Shit."
  • Properly Paranoid: Gordon blesses his paranoia in the beginning, which prevents the thieves from getting his gun at least.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Holnists, who base a person's worth on his (emphasis on his) strength. This leads them to be a cult of hyperviolent, luddite lunatics who kill without hesitation and enslave anyone weaker than them.
    • It's also implied that they and their kind are the reason why civilization ultimately collapsed, having gunned down any attempt at reconstruction they came across.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: The original postman was wearing a colourful parsley shirt under his jacket. He was shot while trying to deliver crucial mail through bandit-infested territory and still had enough resolve to hide his jeep and the correspondence. This becomes handy for Gordon when he finds the body years later - the uniform's shirt was left in mint condition and still well-ironed, waiting in the bag on the passanger seat.
  • Refusal of the Call: George Powhatan. Well, he tried.
  • Resigned to the Call/ 10-Minute Retirement: see Refused The Call. Poor George.
  • The Reveal:
    • Cyclops is dead.
    • Towards the end of the book, the Postman discovers why the Holnists have been pushing so hard into Oregon. They are retreating away from an army in the Republic of California.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Gordon's most trusted companion and precious possession is a snub nose .38 revolver.
  • Rule of Three: Gordon got three letters for Oakridge. You can guess which one opened the gates to the village to him.
  • Scavenger World: To the point where only bare essentials are scavenged and anything more complex is left behind.
  • Schmuck Bait: Only that Gordon is not baiting. After being robbed again, he is hiding in the attic and the looters knows he's somewhere in the vicinity.
    "Sure was nice of that fellow, findin' this for us. Wish we could thank him. Ought to get to know him so we don't shoot first if we ever see him again".
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Gordon is tempted twice to just run away and leave the Willamette Valley to burn:
    • After figuring out that Cyclops is just a benevolent scam used to uphold some remnants of unity and civilisation, he is ready to ride away, especially after learning about advancing Holnist army. But then he clenches his teeth, turns back his horse and takes command over panicked civilians as "the legal representative of the Restored United States, with authority over Northern Oregon and Washington State".
    • Later, when the war is getting really bad, he again contemplates ditching the Willamette Valley, especially since he knows Holnists are already encircling his sleeping camp. Instead, he pulls out his whistle and wakes up everyone, organising fierce defense.
  • Serial Novel: The first part of the book was originally published as a short story and later the second one was written as continuation in the same format. The final part was added after David Brin decided to turn it into full-fledged book. It shows. The first part is written in completely different style and with vocabulary aiming to point how primitive the world is. Both first and second part of the book are clearly stand-alone stories. The final part is obviously aiming to sew everything together into much tighter structure.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Right before Gordon and Abby are about to get busy, the chapter ends. The next one starts after their last encounter. It works, given the nature of their deal.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!:
    • Gordon really tries to believe that cynicism is an answer, treating idealism as a luxury he can't afford. Yet he's genuinely a good person, who keeps on doing the right things and eventually proves himself that idealism is all what's left to firmly believe in.
    • Holnists ideology runs on this trope taken Up to Eleven.
  • Shaming the Mob: After being finally invited to Powhatan's Sugarloaf Peak fortress Gordon quickly realises lies about the Restored United States won't work here. Instead he ditches all the speeches prepared in advance and calls everyone there out on their indifference and lack of action, when they have all the means and skills needed for the fight against Holnists and how things will turn out if they won't help their neighbours. It still doesn't work.
  • Sherlock Scan: How Gordon deducted that Cyclops is dead and the whole thing is just a masquerade - he tied together numerous, disconnected clues and then confronted his theory.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Despite all the horrible things that happen, the message of the book is hopeful.
  • Smug Snake: General Macklin truly thinks of himself as superior to everyone around and acts accordingly. Not to mention his suicidal level of overconfidence thanks to his cybernetic implants.
  • Snow Means Death: The third segment starts this way, with bodies of the fallen being buried by the snow.
  • Snowball Lie: In the process of covering his ass, the Postman accidentally invents a "Restored United States." The myth becomes so widespread that even the Holnists can't stomp it out.
  • So Much for Stealth: When approaching what he thinks is a bandit hideout, Gordon is trying to do it as silently as possible, looking for each of his steps. The moment he turns his gaze from the ground, he instantly steps on a dry twig. Right after lampshading this very trope.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Evil: First robbers, then Holnists, then augments.
  • Still Wearing the Old Colors: Inverted. Inhabitants of Pine View assume this upon meeting Gordon, while he himself never was a postman to begin with and simply looted the uniform from a dead body to prevent hypothermia. Later the uniform is treated as a sign of re-emerging order when he starts his "Postal Inspector" act.
  • Straw Feminist: Dena, sort of. She's very heroic despite her possibly-crazy outlook, however. More - she's quite aware that she might have misinterprated many facts about the pre-war world because of Small Reference Pools she has access to.
  • Super Soldiers: The Augments, who were chosen for their violent tendencies, modified freakishly, and deployed several times before the government wised up to what that sort of soldier does during peacetime. Post-Doomwar, they hold the top positions among the villainous Holnists. George Powhatan is a second generation augment, chosen because he is an Actual Pacifist and forcibly transformed with more subtle implants focusing on biofeedback.
  • Survivor Guilt: Gordon doesn't feel too good about the fact that all his fellow militiamen are dead. It's more than a decade and he still labours under the burden of being last man standing.
  • Taking You with Me: When tracking the muggers in the first chapter, Gordon notes that he will most likely die in the process... but at least the surrounding area will be a bit more safe for future travelers.
  • Tap on the Head: One of the augments knocks Gordon out after finally finding out who is commanding the defences. He fully recovers from it fully few days later, being barely conscious for that time.
  • Taught by Experience: The Willamette Army is trained this way. And by experience we mean being slaughtered each time they engage Holnists.
  • Technical Pacifist: George Powhatan, a man who is a living legend from his fights against Holnists, yet is very reluctant to enter any conflict. Gordon himself usually is stopped by his "old-fashioned scruples".
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Villainous example
    Charles Bezoar: That's Colonel Bezoar.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: When things turn bad, Gordon has to train bunch of civilians, farmers and teenagers into a force capable of fighting or at least putting up organised resistance against the Holnist Army.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: The setting was this from the mid-80s perspective. Now it's a full-blown Alternate History.
  • Unstoppable Mailman: The title character.
  • Unwilling Suspension: When Holnists capture Gordon for the second time, his hands are tied over his head to the beam and he is suspended just above the ground.
  • Utility Belt: Downplayed. Gordon's military belt holds his most important belongings: canteen, Swiss army knife, tube of iodine, compass and holster with his gun and bullets
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: Gordon recalls all the small communities he had visited in his years of wandering - quite brutal and closed to outsiders, unless equally brutal acts were committed to gain entry.
  • Walking the Earth: What Gordon is doing since his squad of militiamen was wiped out.
  • Wasn't That Fun?: According to Johnny, he had great time while escaping from Holnists' HQ.
  • What Have I Become?: The Chairman of Public Safety from Curtin, after realizing how barbaric the life has become. Bonus points for being a former member of the ASPCA, now organizing dog fights. He starts to weep over this.
  • With This Herring: Gordon starts the book with his Utility Belt, in torn clothes and a lame excuse for shoes.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: After finding a secret stash in a physician's house, Gordon is praying for it not to be "gold or other useless crap".
  • Worthy Opponent: One of the main points of Holnist philosophy is high regard toward people who managed to beat them, but that doesn't mean any quarter in case of being encountered in the future:
    • To his own surprise, Gordon is praised for killing of two Holnists he encountered in the library.
    • His second-in-command, a former Marine, is equally praised by Macklin for being capable of defeating his Dragons.
  • Zerg Rush: The only time the Willamette Army scores any victories are all-around assaults on isolated Holnist positions. They might be though, experienced and ruthless survivalists, but it's not much of use while being simply overrun.