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Literature / The Postman

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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:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Judging by the dates which the book gives, war broke out in 1994. The plot starts in 2010, sixteen years later. As the book itself is from 1985, it didn't leave long to invent cyborgs, true AI or laser weapons that could be mounted on satellites.
  • Action Girl: Dena and her Scouts.
  • Action Survivor: Gordon, who is regularly out of his depth and survives by guile or luck.
  • After the End
  • Amazon Brigade: Dena's Army Scouts. They are almost entirely wiped out after a failed attempt to infiltrate and sabotage the Holnists.
  • America Saves the Day: In a sense. The Restored United States of America starts as a lie and ultimately becomes very much real.
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  • And the Adventure Continues: The book ends with the Postman departing to find and make contact with the Republic of California.
  • Apocalypse How: Continental/Societal Collapse. Unusually, there was no 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, hyper-survivalist Holnists who pounced on other bands of survivors without mercy.
  • The Apunkalypse: The rule of law has collapsed After the End, and brigands roam the countryside engaged in assault, rape, and murder.
  • Arc Words: "Who will take responsibility?"
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: A well-Averted Trope. 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.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: The followers of Nathan Holn's philosophy will only accept orders from someone they know can kill them. They generally don't murder their superiors by treachery or stealth, since that wouldn't prove who was 'better'.
  • Backup Bluff: When the Holnists are encircling the unit of Willamette Army Gordon is commanding, he realizes their only chance is in pretending there are more of them. So he makes sure to shout orders to nonexistent back-up at top of his lungs, trying to overcome the gunfire. It works only partially — the Holnists still overrun the camp, but at least the Willamette forces managed to kill a fair few of the survivalists in the ensuing confusion. The charade is even brought back up later, when Gordon is recognized as the "mouthy fellow".
  • 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 in turn George Powhatan killed him.
  • Badass Pacifist:
    • The original postman. While going through his mail, Gordon realises he died three years after the war, courageously going behind lines for the sake of the mail, and only part of it being vital messages.
    • George Powhatan's reputation matches his size, but he doesn't want to fight. He's an augment who is dragged out of seclusion to kill Macklin, another augment, when there's no other option.
  • 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: 'The Postman' has arrived from 'The Restored States' to save the Northwest. Cyclops turns out to be one as well.
  • Becoming the Boast: While he initially only took on the guise of a postman to save his own skin, Gordon carries the bluff far enough that he actually manages to put together a functioning postal system.
  • Becoming the Mask: Gordon and his Postal Inspector persona. He's very aware of that.
  • Black Comedy: The only comedy allowed. But it's fitting.
  • Boring, but Practical: Gordon's bow. But before he learned how to use it, it was Cool, but Inefficient.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late:
    • When the anti-tech mob attack Corvallis, the remnants of the local military arrive after the damage has been done and Cyclops is dying.
    • Gordon finally abandoned the post assigned to his militia unit when neither reinforcements nor relief came for over a year. By that time he was the last man left guarding the empty soy silos.
  • 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.
  • Character Development: During the course of the story Gordon evolves from a frightened, timid drifter minding his own business and struggling to survive ... into a Determinator, bringing hope to the terrorized people of Oregon and connecting the individual efforts of many communities into unified work for their mutual progress. He remains a Deadpan Snarker, though.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The diary Gordon loses in the beginning shows up toward the end in the hands of the Holnists, as does its thief.
    • The whistle Gordon receives from Abby in the first section became very handy in the third one, when he used it to signal his men about a Holnist ambush.
    • The letter from Dena became useful when it was accidentally read by one of the Holnists' slaves, inspiring her to help Gordon and Johnny escape.
  • Chosen Conception Partner: Having mumps as an adult rendered Michael infertile. While he and Abby are both Happily Married, they also want to have a child. To avoid the genetic bottleneck effect and friction with a locally-picked father, they ask Gordon, an outside drifter, to try to impregnate Abby. The book somehow manages to handle it without making it as awkward as it sounds and it doesn't carry any romantic undertones, unlike the infamous Romantic Plot Tumor from the film adaptation. Gordon never again visits Pine View and intentionally distances himself from the daughter Abby bears.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Gordon, despite his strong common sense and all the bad things around, keeps on resigning himself to his fate and going for a rescue or providing help to the needy, even if he would prefer to remain the coward he feels he is. Instead of freezing he musters the resolve to do something heroic ... or his body overcomes his cowardice and acts on instinct.
  • 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 seemingly innocuous position of postman.
  • Con Man: By pure chance, Gordon ends up in a grand scheme as the mastermind behind it. It almost seems like he's made a postman by fate and can't do anything about it.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Nathan Holn, a batshit 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. Except, of course, the Holnists who have taken his Might Makes Right philosophy Up to Eleven.
  • 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. Also that the Holnists forever tainted the term "survivalist".
  • Dead Guy on Display: Holnists "mark" their territory with crucified people. They also use it as a punishment for misbehaving slaves and a warning to others to stay in line.
  • 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.
  • Death Glare: Gordon gave one to the Mayor of Oakridge when he started to contest the Mayor's authority over the town — the first act of defiance the Mayor had to face in many years.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Averted for almost all characters, who die suddenly, without much fanfare and often without funeral, but played absolutely straight when Dena dies. She has all the time needed to talk with Gordon for the last time and expires calmly in his embrace.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: Openly admitted by the author as the massive take down on the entire post-apocalypse genre, which was at its peak of popularity back then. Most of it is achieved by simple Perspective Flip and telling the story from the perspective of people that are usually saved by some cliché, One-Man Army-style Anti-Hero and making it a point to show just how horrible life without modern civilization can get. And that usual hero archetype is most represented by the bad guys here, with a lot of the ideas underlying it deconstructed. The protagonist himself isn't some badass loner who is strengthened by living in the wild, but a milquetoast man who hates struggling in the wild and wishes to join a community that has rebuilt itself. His heroism does not come from winning battles, but by (inadvertantly) inspiring others to think beyond merely survival and rebuild civilization.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Ever since the world collapsed, Gordon has been just drifting all over the northern parts of the former US, trying to find some place worth staying and any semblance of civilization worth taking part in.
  • Disney Villain Death: After a climactic and lengthy duel, George Powhatan grabs General Macklin and throws him down a gorge.
  • Divide and Conquer:
    • In the backstory, this eventually led to the fall of civilization, since all the increasingly shattered communities eventually stopped any cooperation and just sealed themselves away from outsiders, in the process becoming very easy prey for even small groups of bandits and Holnists.
    • A heroic example is used by Gordon with great effect. Each time he finds people distrusting his story about RUSA or the Postal Service, he makes sure to appoint them as local Post Masters, making them personally part of the system and thus unable to go against it.
  • Divided We Fall: The only reason why Holnists or just regular thugs and bandits can thrive is lack of cooperation and unity on the side of the communities they oppress. The book as a whole makes it a point to explain that civilization and society as we know it can exist when and only when people work together for shared goals, putting the group ahead of their own ambitions. This was written at a time when Greed was seen as a virtue.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After a long time of mistreatment, one of the Holnist slaves poisons a few guards and helps Gordon and Johnny escape. She even manages to arrange the retrieval of Gordon's diary without realizing how important it is.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Postman, as a mail carrier and a person living after some event. Gordon is both.
  • The Dreaded: Subverted with the Holnists — they are generally feared, but hated even more. Large bands of Holnists can force people into submission, but if any of them are caught alone, the common people will show no mercy.
  • The Drifter: Gordon's ultimate role, after he finally embraces The Call.
  • Dumb Muscle: Survivalists in general. So dumb that a brick is brighter.
  • Eagleland: The book examines both sides of this dualistic trope. Type I, which idealizes liberty, equality and peace, is contrasted with Type II, which idealizes paranoid extremism, a gung-ho attitude, and over-the-top individualism. The hero is representative of the first, the villains the second.
  • Elite Mooks: The other two augments under Macklin's command. One of them is introduced by grabbing the other end of a fireplace poker Macklin is holding and pulling on it until it snaps. No, not by bending. Pulling. Between thumb and finger as if it was taffy. When it goes, it's red-hot from friction and every baseline in the room winces from the heat release.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Holnists, but only if you are male, although one of the augments clearly does not like the idea that black soldiers might serve with them. General Macklin chides him for this, however, saying Nathan Holn wasn't a racist and expresses admiration for a black man who's fighting them (a former Marine) while saying his own sons would be required to earn their place in the Holnist army, or else be serfs. The fact that all Holnists seem to be white is explained by Macklin saying most of the racial minorities didn't survive after the apocalypse as the result of being disadvantaged. It seems probable people of color would be less attracted to such a philosophy given its historical associations though too.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Those who have bought into the Holnist philosophy believe that anything you can acquire by force is rightfully yours, and this makes women inherently inferior. They can't accept any philosophies of equality or respect for people weaker than you as anything except a delusion among those 'frightened' of this 'reality', serving to shackle the strong men like them.
  • 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.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Mayor of Oakridge remains nameless even after being deposed from the post. And he wasn't elected for it either.
  • 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.
  • Fallen States of America: There is no recognized United States government following the Doomwar, however Gordon's presence and actions as a "postman" give others hope that one has been restored.
  • Fallout Shelter Fail: The protagonist mentions finding fallout shelters whose owners didn't make it every so often, and hoping that the prior occupants stocked up on more non-perishable food than useless stuff like gold.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Charles Bezoar tries to pass for a decent person for a while, but the illusion shatters eventually, with just a few tiny pushes made by Gordon.
  • Feudal Future: Countless communities were either reduced into clan-like organisations or outright serfdom under some strongman. Then there is the land under Holnist rule, which is divided into baronies — hell-holes where everybody except the local brute-squad are slaves for some local "lord".
  • First-Person Smartass: Gordon's consciousness works this way.
  • For Want of a Nail: Holnists under General Macklin would probably have a field day in the Willamette Valley, if not for the fact Gordon organized communication and cooperation of local settlements under the de facto leadership of Servants of the Cyclops and convincing George Powhatan along with his hardened community to join the fight. Should they have gone in just a few months earlier, they would have easily won.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Roger Septien, one of the robbers at the beginning, introduces himself as a former stockbroker. Later on, Colonel Bezoar says he was once a lawyer and Republican county commissioner.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Government research before the Doomwar used cybernetic enhancements to create Super Soldier forces ... without considering the psychological effects this would have on aggressive personalities. This research into 'augments' was soon cancelled, and most of the soldiers involved were Brought Down to Normal before the Doomwar. A second program, with a little more thought put into it, followed.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: True-blue postal carriers vs. camouflaged Holnists.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Given the nature of the setting itself, it's a given.
    • People from the Willamette Valley are decent and good folks, but they live in a violent world and will not hesitate to use lethal force the second they realize it's necessary.
    • Gordon himself. The very first chapter of the book opens with portraying him as nice and civil guy who just tries to survive. Which in the given situation means preparing to shoot in cold blood four robbers who just have stolen most of his belongings.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: It's hinted that the Soviet Union survived until the Doomwar, or was toppled by violent revolution right before it. The war took place in the mid-1990s.
  • 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 the Holnists capture him for the second time. He manages to climb on a beam his hands were tied to, but the first thing Colonel Bezoar does is look in that direction the moment he realizes Gordon is missing. Gordon expects this, however, dropping onto him at once.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: From a loner faking a postal system to a war involving superhuman experiments!
  • Helpful Hallucination: Although they can't take direct action, all Gordon's "ghosts" — Cyclops, Johnny Stevens, the Army Scouts, dream-Benjamin Franklin and his chess-playing stove, the original postman, etc. — appear to encourage him toward the end.
  • 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 killed comrades - by their philosophy, if you managed to kill one of them, you are a Worthy Opponent. Gordon is also promised he will get a "worthy" death as a result (i.e. probably shooting instead of crucifixion).
    • 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 the 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: Discussed. 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 could they reach true sentience going beyond the 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.
  • Ironic Name: The Holnists' call their domain "the Free Realm", with their military being the "American Liberation Army". They're a slave society and seek to conquer everyone else around them. No doubt they would not view this as ironic, however — rather as the freedom of the strong to crush or rule the weak, without restraints.
  • Irony: After impressing inhabitants of Pine View, Gordon is hoping to stay there for a while or even settle with them, which he really wants to do. Instead, they decide to encourage him to journey further, so his grand plan is destroyed. The whole situation 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 the book's timeline, humanity managed to build computers capable of reaching true AI, introduced two generations of cyborgs and were able to deploy military-grade laser weapon systems. All by the mid-'90s.
  • 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 blame Holnists for them later.
  • Keystone Army: Given how Holnists' ranks work, killing all their high command in the last 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 the 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 Holnist HQ, as he is unlucky enough to stand guard in a vital spot.
  • Life Will Kill You: It's never clearly stated, but apparently a sizable chunk of the militia unit Gordon was serving in died from malnutrition and dental infections caused by low hygiene. 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.
  • Magnetic Hero: Played with. It's not Gordon personally, but rather him as an idea of a person catching attention and gaining support from all the local communities.
  • Matriarchy: And a noble one — Pine View is guided by elderly Mrs. Thompson. The first chapter is much more prone to use tribalistic references and thus even narration calls her a matriarch a 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 them. 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 the 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 an extremely experienced scavenger and scout, able to find holes in local defenses on the fly or picking off small squads of Holnists one by one.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Often invoked by different characters toward the pre-war world. People tend to sing commercial jingles just to recall good old times. Also part of what makes Gordon's masquerade so effective: of all the hallmarks of civilization before the collapse, the accessibility of the postal service and the positive connotations it held make it a symbol that survivors latched onto immediately. One survivor fondly reminisces on how their father would leave out a glass of whiskey for the mail carrier every Christmas.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: The Willamette Army on their own fallen, to convince the general public how horrible the Holnists are. The Holnists, of course, are no 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 realizes 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 façade 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 out victorious and barely scratched when facing improbable odds. Also, George Powhatan's achievements are Shrouded in Myth, just like he is 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 aware of 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 a 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:
    He had one word to offer in reply.
  • 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, Social Darwinist 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 colorful paisley 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 passenger seat.
  • Refusal of the Call: George Powhatan. Well, he tried.
  • Resigned to the Call/10-Minute Retirement: See Refusal of 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 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 know 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 well-meaning scam used to uphold some remnants of unity and civilization, he is ready to ride away, especially after learning about an 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, organizing 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 a full-fledged book. It shows. The first part is written in a completely different style and with vocabulary aiming to point how primitive the world is. The first two parts of the book fit as clearly standalone 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 Mountain fortress, Gordon quickly realizes 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 neighbors. It still doesn't work.
  • Sherlock Scan: How Gordon deduced that Cyclops is dead and the whole thing is just a masquerade — he tied together numerous, disconnected clues and then confronted people with 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.
  • The Social Darwinist: Holnists, who firmly believe that the strong should rule the weak, the only possible law is the law of the jungle and idealistic principles are only good for retarded and kids.
  • 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.
  • Spanner in the Works: Gordon with his Snowball Lie shows up mere months before Holnist evacuation into Oregon. This means they encounter organised and fierce resistance of the entire region, rather than just picking settlements one by one like they're used to.
  • 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: The title character is caught between the Scouts and the Holnists (straw masculists). The Scouts come off better, but they're still slightly crazy. The main difference between the Scouts and most examples on this page is that they are roughly egalitarian feminists who (1) know of the progress made towards gender equality in the USA during the 20th century and (2) recognize that in the post-apocalyptic present all those achievements are being eroded. Furthermore, they realize that within a generation or two women could be in the same situation they were two centuries ago, or if the Holnists win, far, far worse. They are determined to avoid this possibility. The "slightly crazy" part is because they're long on ideology and commitment but short on practical solutions. Although they earnestly try to train and prepare for the coming conflict, battle between the Scouts (in their current form) and the Holnists would be a lot like an armed hiking club trying to repel a Cossack raid. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their plot against the Holnists fails. Importantly, Scouts, unlike Holnists, are not only aware they have Small Reference Pools for their ideology, which obviously leads to various misinterpretations, but are doing their best to keep the more extreme stances and ideas under the rug, while Holnists dive headfirst into their extremism.
  • 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.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: A few times Gordon decides to just roll with wild assumptions made by people from visited settlements. He even carefully incorporated some of those into his own grand lie about the Restored United States.
  • 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 labors under the burden of being the last man standing.
  • Take That, Audience!: There are countless jabs throughout the story towards all sort of prepper types that might read the book simply because it's set After the End. Even with Holnists removed from the equation, the sole notion of the glorified "self-sustaining survivor" is shred to pieces. Rather than focusing on the self-righteous hero, the story instead points out what happens if two (or more) such types end up in a single area and how much havoc they will cause to people around them. By the start of the book, the vast majority of those types managed to kill each other dead over a decade ago, in the process squandering a huge amount of vital supplies and dragging the whole civilization down to "protect" their lifestyle.
  • 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.
    • The general fighting style of the Willamette Army is described by their utmost defiance. Even when on the losing end — which is their usual situation — they always make sure to kill as many Holnists as possible.
  • Tap on the Head: One of the augments knocks Gordon out after finally finding out who is commanding the defenses. He only fully recovers from it a 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 a bunch of civilians, farmers and teenagers into a force capable of fighting or at least putting up organized resistance against the Holnist Army.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The setting was this from the mid-1980s perspective. Now it's a full-blown Alternate History.
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: The details are intentionally kept vague, but it's relatively easy to figure out that whatever the Doomwar was about, it ended up with limited nuclear exchange, combined with high-altitude detonations (thus EMP) and biological agents were also used. However, neither of those knocked the government or civilisation as such down. Instead it was result of the various mobs that formed in the aftermath of war, some of which actively and deliberately gunned down and destroyed any sign of reconstruction they've came across, further combined with indifference of people not affected directly. The letters Gordon finds in the van clearly indicate that things were struggling, but somewhat still normal three years after the Doomwar and he was himself a guardsman in the National Guard some two years after the war. All this uncertainity is used as a plot-point, since in the end, it doesn't really matter and people have to come to terms with it if they didn't already.
  • 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 Trope. Gordon's military belt holds his most important belongings: canteen, Swiss army knife, tube of iodine, compass, and holster with his gun and bullets.
  • Victory by Endurance: Discussed and invoked. General Macklin explains to Gordon how his minor setbacks are meaningless in the long run, simply because he has ideological superiority over "cowards" — the Holnists can simply wait out for the local alliances to collapse over time when they will no longer be under pressure of direct threat, only for the Holnists to return then to mop up the survivors one by one. All while the teachings of Nathan Holn are very tempting to ambitious, strong and brave individuals, further eroding ranks of the "sheep". But it's the Willamette Valley that comes out victorious this way, simply by resisting the Holnists for long enough to finally convince George Powhatan to join their fight. Few weeks later Holnists are a Decapitated Army on retreat and busy fighting each other for the leadership, while the Oregon region emerges as unified territory with a strong government.
  • 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 a great time while escaping from the Holnists' HQ.
  • We Can Rule Together: Macklin makes an offer like this to Gordon when he's his prisoner. He recognizes that Gordon is a worthy opponent of the Holnists, and says he'd be made a baron. Knowing Gordon's principles, he even says that he'd be allowed to treat his serfs compassionately if that's his wish. Gordon flatly rejects this, however.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Subverted. Remember those robbers from the first chapter and who Gordon apparently left alone? They manage to bite his ass twice, when their leader returns in the third part of the book, as a freshly recruited Holnist, along with Gordon's diary, the only existing proof that there is no such thing as the Restored United States. General Macklin couldn't be happier about all this.
  • What Have I Become?: The Chairman of Public Safety from Curtin, after realizing how barbaric life has become. Bonus points for being a former member of the ASPCA, now organizing dog fights. He starts to weep over this.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: The brutal survivalists/Holnists are led by General Macklin and his aides, who were pre-war experiments on creating soldiers with superhuman strength and speed. The government chose the most ruthless, intelligent, and efficient killers in its military, with foreseeable results when the US itself turned into an anarchistic warzone. Macklin is finally killed by George Powhatan, a later experiment of the same ilk, though with a nature loving Neo-Hippie as subject.
  • With This Herring: Gordon starts the book with his Utility Belt, in torn clothes and a lame excuse for shoes.
  • World War III: The Doomwar, which apparently started when the Cold War escalated into actual conflict.
  • 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 who he encountered in the library. Despite Holnist ideology being sexist, Macklin also even praises the female Army Scouts for their plot against the Holnists too.
    • His second-in-command, a former Marine, is equally praised by Macklin for being capable of defeating his Dragons.
  • Writer on Board: But a really good one. Brin makes a good cause for his agenda: society can only work when people within it are willing to cooperate and look past their own personal gains, focusing on the broader picture instead, as this will benefit them anyway. The sum can be much greater than its parts, making all those individuals who feel powerless stronger as a group.
  • Zerg Rush: The only time the Willamette Army scores any victories are all-around assaults on isolated Holnist positions. They might be thorough, experienced, and ruthless survivalists, but it's not of much use while being simply overrun.


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