Culture > Books

Books & Film: Order, chaos

Books | Forget the The Postman movie; the book delivers

Issue: "Pensacola," Dec. 20, 1997

I remember being struck by how very small a miracle it takes in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength to bring down the powerful conspiracy threatening England. During a meeting of the chief conspirators, language is confused; no one can understand anyone else. Confusion leads to chaos, and chaos leads to anarchy, which leads to the self-destruction of the cabal. David Brin's The Postman demonstrates the opposite proposition: how very little order it takes to bring civilization out of chaos. The title character, Gordon Krantz, wanders through a post-apocalyptic world, just trying to survive. Finding a postman's uniform and undelivered mail, he hopes to parlay these into a free meal and a warm place to sleep. But he finds that by becoming a symbol of the old order, he becomes the catalyst for a renewed war against chaos. It's important here to differentiate between the novel and the film version. The novel is a smart, innovative work that addresses a very real question: What is it that civilizes mankind? The movie, directed by and starring Kevin Costner, is a dumbed-down version with the intellectual depth (though not the budget) of Waterworld. Hollywood shies away from Mr. Brin's question and replaces some of his best characters with stock villains. By renaming the bad guys "General Bethlehem" and "Ford," Hollywood seems to be maintaining, not surprisingly, that whatever it is that civilizes mankind, Christ and capitalism most definitely do not. But don't let a bad movie steer you away from a good novel. Mr. Brin's book, which first appeared in 1985, surpasses most of its after-the-Big-One-drops brethren because it's not really about how terrible technology is, or how stupid mankind is, or how the world would be better off if apes were in charge. It's about what makes people able to live with each other. Mr. Brin's setting is a feudalistic Pacific Northwest. Thirteen years earlier, the United States had won a nuclear war, but its fatally wounded infrastructure had collapsed a few months later. Gordon lived through the swift disintegration of society, brought about by disease, famine, and the destructive leadership of survivalist Nathan Holn. All that's left are a few scattered communities, disunited and distrustful. Gordon has been surviving as a traveling player, reciting portions of Shakespeare in exchange for a meal or two. When he finds the mailman's things, he takes on the role of Postman for the fictitious Restored United States of America. It's not a very good lie, but he finds that people are desperate to believe it. And it becomes somewhat self-fulfilling. Mr. Brin concludes that two things combine to civilize mankind-rather, two things combine to civilize Man, since one of those two things is Woman. Don't worry, this isn't a futuristic feminism; rather, it's the timely recognition of an ancient truth. The second thing is order, in some degree and in some guise (in this case, the guise of a mailman). The Romantics saw civilization as oppressive; Mr. Brin points out that mankind is oppressive without civilization. His contention is particularly relevant today, as criminologists begin to realize that the little things-graffiti, untidy streets, abandoned buildings-really do usher in greater crime. Mr. Brin's prose isn't what makes the novel memorable; but give the guy a break, he really is a rocket scientist (with a Ph.D. in astrophysics and experience as a NASA consultant). At times his phrases stumble, but his story is solid. He doesn't address Christianity at all, and that's his failing, but it's a lesser sin than making Christianity the culprit, as Hollywood often does. The Postman (the novel) will outlast The Postman (the movie) because it has something to say. What's refreshing is that it's something worth listening to.

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