I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic fiction. I blame Stephen King. I read his opus The Stand at entirely too young an age—I was maybe twelve, and the Complete & Uncut Edition had only recently come out—and it always stuck with me. (I suppose you can argue that it’s apocalyptic fiction, not post-apocalyptic, but you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.) As a result I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the years A) thinking about how I’d try to survive in such a scenario, and B) seeking out more such stories.
That brings us to the Fallout series of video games, which (I think) I’ve referenced before on this blog. The games take place over the course of the next two to three hundred years, in an alternate timeline where a series of wars culminated in a short but devastating nuclear attack. Many of the survivors were mutated; many others survived by living in underground vaults, which turned out to be less humanitarian shelters and more terrifying social experiments. Not relevant, but notable: the most recent entry, Fallout 76, takes place in my home state of West Virginia, with many landmarks that are close to my hometown. It’s a great series of games, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you should check it out.
I browse a few communities dedicated to discussion of—and recommendations for—books. Several times I’ve seen threads come up asking for books similar to the Fallout series, books which—surprisingly to me—seem to be in short supply. There’s plenty of post-apocalyptic literature out there, but not much that captures the foraging, survivalist, devastated vibe of the game series. And It’s really no wonder; this seems to be an issue with post-apocalyptic movies, as well. (I’d recommend The Book of Eli for a starter, if you’re interested; it’s perhaps the most Fallout-esque movie I’ve seen.) One book, however, comes up again and again in these threads; that book is David Brin’s 1985 novel, The Postman.
Let me go ahead and say it up front: This is the book that was adapted into the 1997 Kevin Costner movie of the same name. But I can’t comment on that; I haven’t seen the movie. Frankly, from what I’ve read about it, I’m glad to have read the book first; I’d rather not judge the book by the movie. It’s easier for me to make comparisons with Fallout; and indeed, I’ve read suggestions that this novel was an inspiration for the Fallout series. That may be true or may not, but regardless, there are definite similarities. At any rate, when I saw this book get recommended so often, I knew I had to check it out.
The Postman is the story of Gordon Krantz, a 34-year-old survivor of the Doomwar, the nuclear war that led to the downfall of modern civilization, sixteen years earlier. Gordon has been wandering and surviving for years, searching for some place with a measure of civilization remaining, so that he can settle down; but it isn’t meant to be. He is ambushed and robbed as the story begins. Left with no belongings, and lacking even decent clothes, he stumbles upon an ancient postal service jeep with a mummified corpse inside. He takes the corpse’s uniform, simply for warmth; and for his own amusement, he takes the dead postman’s satchel and letters. However, he gets more than he bargained for when he discovers that, with a little nudging, other survivors are in awe of the trappings of the old world; and so he crafts a series of lies regarding the “Restored United States of America”, of which he claims to be a representative. At first he does so only to obtain food and shelter; but the lie—and its unexpected power—spirals beyond his control, as real postal routes are established in his wake, tying the scattered settlements together. Still, he feels nothing but guilt—until the fledgling alliance of towns is attacked by a force they aren’t equipped to handle, and it falls to Gordon Krantz to save them all.
I mentioned similarities to Fallout, and they are definitely present. In both works, most of the infrastructure of civilization lies in ruins; there are bunkers and military fortifications littering the landscape; survivalists and doomsday preppers are, not surprisingly, salted liberally among the survivors (and specifically the antagonists). There are talking supercomputers, a pretender to the name of the United States, a courier system, augmented human supersoldiers, fatal diseases, resource conflicts, raiders, drug problems, laser-bearing satellites, deceptive scientists, lots and lots of guns…I could go on. Notably missing are the underground vaults that form so much of Fallout’s infrastructure and plot; that innovation didn’t come from the novel, though it’s a natural extension of a nuclear apocalyptic scenario, with some real-world analogues.
The other noteworthy difference is in the means by which the apocalypse occurred. Brin goes to great lengths to establish that humanity was by no means in a vulnerable position when the Doomwar broke out; rather, it seemed to be on the cusp of a golden age. The only exception were certain regressive elements composed of survivalists and doomsday preppers, which—under the leadership of the tyrannical Nathan Holn—metamorphosed into something similar to a heavily armed Neo-Nazi movement. Unlike Fallout, the bombs and related breakdowns didn’t cripple humanity—in fact, humanity was well positioned to recover from the war itself. Rather, it was the Holnists and others like them who brought about the downfall of civilization, by destabilizing the world in the wake of the war. As a result, even feuding postwar communities will band together to wipe out Holnist enclaves; and it is a large army of Holnists—practically a nation in their own right—who are the principal antagonists of the story. Gordon Krantz, then, finds himself forging together a free nation in the wilds of Oregon, leading them against a far superior force of Holnists. After all, there are no more bombs available; but the Holnists didn’t really need the bombs the first time, and they can certainly destroy civilization again without it.
Thus, the book becomes something more than a battle between survivors…it’s a battle between ideals. Is civilization, here in its second chance, going to be founded on freedom and equality and community, or is it going to be founded on power and oppression and selfishness? I’ll let you read the book for yourself to determine the outcome.
I was impressed with the way Gordon’s own ethical dilemma was handled. Like many other post-apocalyptic protagonists, Gordon is a bit of a relic of the old world—an idealist among pragmatists. His internal struggle is certainly one of idealism vs. pragmatism—is it better to tell the truth (that the old US is well and truly dead) or to use the lie to live another day? But, as the story progresses, and Gordon becomes more bound to the lie, it becomes less about him and more about those around him. He is faced with the question of “who will take responsibility for these people?” The book never actively condones the lie; but as Gordon grapples with responsibility, it says to him, “This is what you’ve done—now what are you going to do with it? How will you bring good out of this lie?” Ultimately that’s what he does—his lie, though never right, is turned toward the goal of forging a better future for the people in his care. He never excuses himself, but he chooses the hard path of seeing it through and making something good. That’s a hero worth following, in my opinion.
Of course, it brings us to the same question. Why wait for the post-apocalypse, when we face the same dilemma every day: Who will take responsibility? I won’t call it an epidemic, but there are certainly many people in our world today who refuse to ever take responsibility—for themselves, for their families, for anyone else in their orbit. That’s not even getting to the matter of taking responsibility for the world—the world is too big to consider at every occasion. Its size becomes an excuse for us; we can say we’re concerned, but there’s very little we can do to show it. However, when it comes to our own lives, and our own actions, and our own families and friends, we really have no excuse. At some point each of us is called upon to step up, do the hard thing, stay the course, and take responsibility. We can take that lesson from Gordon Krantz, and be the one who follows through.
Heavier material than I expected from a mid-eighties sci-fi novel, I admit. I think that’s good enough for today.
It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? With a good month under my belt, I’ve decided to increase my reading goal to 52 books for the year, or one per week on average; you can do the same, and check out the 52 book challenge community over at Reddit. So far I’ve completed ten books. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!