Thursday, April 14, 2005

Books: "The Postman" by David Brin - chillingly current...


The final verdict has come from the shop: my computer is definitively dead, fried, kaputt. I will be scrambling for a replacament over the next week or so, but until then I cannot read 90% of the blogs (including my own), and while the car is in the shop (blew a gasket!!!) I cannot go to a decent computer either. That's a shame, as I cannot post links to good blog posts, read carnivals, or continue my series of Friday Good Blog Recommendations. I recommended Lance Mannion, Apophenia and David Brin's Blog so far, and intend to continue as soon as the computer situation stabilizes.

Speaking of David Brin, as a scientist and a sci-fi afficionado I am ashamed to admit that I have read only one Brin's book (I have read some of his theoretical papers, though). It was "Startide Rising" in Serbo-Croatian translation. I was a young teen. It was long time ago when I had time to devour several sci-fi novels per week. Thus, I barely remember this one except for dolphins and apes flying through space and fighting big wars.

I have four or five others here, on the bookshelf, patiently awaiting for me to have more time to finally read through the enormous and growing backlog of books. I actually moved them up on the list somewhat since I started reading Brin's blog and his masterful series on the history of the war between Enlightment and anti-Enlightment forces.

And then, not aware of any of this, my wife goes out and buys Brin's "The Postman", reads it in a day and pronounces it excellent (and she is quite a tough critic). Thus, I have just spent the afternoon/evening reading it myself, riveted from the very first chapter until the end.

"The Postman" was written in mid-1980s, before the end of Cold War, and is one of many books exploring the post-WWIII America. But he has a twist. The war was fought half-heartily. Thus, it lasted very short time, eliminating governments and infrastructure, and cooling the climate for just a couple of years, without killing off most of the human population. Sure, there is some radiation here and there, some nasty diseases, but by and large, humans survived in pretty large numbers. But all that humanity is suddenly left without any civilizational amenities, or any governmental oversight. Anarchy starts and many people get killed in an orgy of the world red in tooth and claw.

The novel is an exploration about types of social organizations that spring up in such changed conditions, from loners, through bands of thugs, to rural communities, to remnants of college towns, all scattered around the country and pretty much losing all contact with each other. Brin explores "types" of humans: good and strong men, bad and strong men, most other men who are in-between and irrelevant, and women. The fights are, really between the forces of anti-Enlightement (or new macho barbarism of militias and "survivalists") and the forces of Enlightement (educated people who remember and cherish the pre-war civilization).

What it means to be "strong" or "weak"? Was Enlightement a temporary error in human history? Are humans "naturally" prone to form societies based on hierarchy of power, aggression and ruthleseness, and if so, are such societies inevitably going to win long-term? Is it worth fighting against them? What sacrifices one must make if one wants to fight them? How much one needs to understand them in order to fight them successfully?

The main protagonist, Gordon, was a college student in Minnesota at the time of the WWIII. He travels west, alone, and learns how to survive. After 13 years, at the time the novel starts, he enters Oregon and, by some fortune, finds a postal jeep with a skeleton of a long-dead postman. Recently robbed of clothes, he puts on the postman's uniform and soon realizes its power: it has a sign of the US government and people treat him as an official governmental officer. In him, they see that the US government is back and busy rebuilding the country, starting with re-establishing the postal service. In Gordon, they see hope for return to normalcy and civilization. Even more importanatly, they give him letters to deliver and he does so, demonstrating to each long-isolated community that other communities exist.

He uses his power wisely and binds various Oregon communities together into a new state of Oregon and raises the army to defend from the "survivalists" coming from the South. Much action transpires, all the while posing questions about good and evil, the meaning of strength, and the inevitability of history.

Looking back 20 years we can notice a couple of historical errors in what happens during the 1990s, but those are rarely even mentioned and are completely irrelevant. As you read the book, in the back of your mind is the nagging thought that his scenario seems very realistic even if such social conditions (no government, no electricity, no transportation) would happen today. You read statements and proclamations by various actors in the drama and you recognize the rhetoric - you can almost play an easy game: which public figure of today would join which group? You can just see how today's Regressives would neatly fit in the vulgar hierarchical society of "survivalists" with its brutality, women's slavery, fear, hatred, racism, paranoia, aggression and violence. People like Vox Day, for instance.... Makes one think that Stephen Ducat is really right about his notion of Femiphobia in "The Wimp Factor"....(see my previous post).

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