A few years ago I watched The Postman (1997) with Kevin Costner and thought the movie was excellent, despite its critics. Recently I picked up the 1985 novel of the same name by David Brin to compare the two, and did so with high expectations because usually the book is better than the movie. In this instance, that was not the case.
In the movie, Kevin Costner plays an unidentified wandering minstrel who travels from settlement to settlement in post-apocalypse Oregon, putting on Shakespearean performances in return for food, until he is forcibly inducted into the Holnists, a militia group commanded by General Bethlehem (Will Patton). Costner eventually escapes and stumbles across an abandoned U.S. mail truck, steals the postal worker’s uniform and mail bag, and adopts the persona of the Postman. He still travels from settlement to settlement, only now he claims to be a representative of the Restored U.S. Government. Inspired by the ideal of the country rebuilding itself, the settlements ban together and teenagers establish a Pony Express-like mail service that spreads across Oregon. General Bethlehem, afraid that this Restored U.S. Government will deprive him of his power, cracks down on the resurgent national movement, murdering the teenage postmen and enacting vengeance on any town that has established a post office or flies a U.S flag. Despite the Postman’s repeated attempts to avoid conflict, there is eventually a confrontation in which the Postman confronts and defeats Bethlehem, allowing the foundation to be set for an actual Restored U.S. Government. I always viewed the movie version of The Postman as having a political message that people need to stand up to tyranny, and that the individual has to rise above his/her own flaws and become something greater than themself for the good of the country.
Brin’s novel takes a different track. The main character is Gordon Krantz, a wanderer in post-apocalypse Oregon who hides in a postal truck after his possessions and clothes are stolen by bandits, and who steals the uniform of the postal worker to keep warm. As he travels from settlement to settlement looking for a handout, the locals rally around him, buoyed by the idea of a Restored U.S. Government. In an environment that is more science fiction/dystopian than post-apocalyptic, Krantz comes across: a town that worships Cyclops, a supposed sentient artificial intelligence that offers the locals guidance, but is actually an electronic hulk whose wisdom is provided by the scientists who run it; an all-female settlement of Amazonian-like warriors; and the Holnists, the leaders of which are physically augmented hyper-survivalists. What I did not like about the novel is that Krantz is not the driving force behind events; at best, he is driven by them, and often is only a witness. The Postman is filled with symbolism of what Brin thought, at that time, might bring about the downfall of humanity, and in that aspect it is an interesting novel. However, I had been expecting a riveting post-apocalypse story, and was disappointed.