I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s lyrical post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road for a book club. I think it’s going to be hard for me to read other post-apocalyptic novels after that one. I have read many of them before, including about half-a-dozen so far for this blog. As the Cold War winds down, however, they get fewer and farther between.
The novel takes place in the far-off year 2011, after waves of warfare and social destruction have wrapped around the globe following a world war that began in 1995. There were nuclear weapons, plagues, and fascistic militias. Gordon Krantz has spent much of the last sixteen years wandering across the mountain west, playing scenes from Shakespeare for food. When he discovers an old postal truck, complete with a uniform-wearing postal worker corpse, he decides that he can earn his room and board easier by delivering mail. This starts out as a cynical ploy, but he soon begins to weave a fantasy of a restored United States with a working Post Office in an attempt to unite the survivors of Oregon against a new militia attack. The messages are clear and simplistic – fascistic militias are bad, small town democracy (and America!) is good. It’s not that I disagree with these messages, but I don’t think they’re particularly interesting (though the view that a central state with strong institutions might be a good thing seems to get rarer every day). There are some more interesting ideas about the ethics of propagandistic lies, but this thread gets lost in a mélange of subplots and a manufactured action sequence that takes up the last quarter of the novel.
Actually, there are a lot of subplots here, and the novel’s biggest problem is probably how poorly they mesh. The first half is a merging of multiple novellas, and the plot does jerk through different episodes. The sub-plots also tend to really stretch the old suspension of disbelief. One involves a supercomputer* and the other a group of crazy neo-feminists. I’ve complained a lot lately about the lack of good female characters, and this novel is not an improvement: we have a comely and willing young married woman who sleeps with Gordon, and another comely-but-crazy, young neo-feminist who loves Gordon. That’s about the sum total of their characters.
I haven’t seen the Kevin Costner-starring film adaptation, which was a box office and critical failure (though I have some friends who like it), but I can see why the film might not work. The novel is a bit too transparent and sentimental in its patriotism and political messages, and it doesn't have the most cohesive plot.
*Brin wins an award for bad futurism here. He puts humans on Mars and gives them sentient AIs before the collapse…in 1995. Normally, I just let bad futurism pass with, at most, a sarcastic remark, but considering that one of the themes of the book is the problem-solving wonder of technology, it’s a tad more significant here.