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Monday, 12 January 2009


Currently the Nonbelieving Literati are writing posts about, or in response to, The Postman by David Brin.

The Postman takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. After wars and famines and the breakdown of civilisation, people have -- yes, I'll say the word -- they have lost faith. They don't believe in their fellow human beings any more. People band into groups whose attitude to outsiders varies from apathetic to completely ruthless. The social contract has broken down. There's no point in showing compassion to a stranger who might never be able to repay -- who might, in fact, be much more likely to simply take advantage of your weakness to steal the things that you need to survive and leave you to die. So Gordon Krantz struggles across America as a sort of wandering minstrel, trading scraps of half-remembered Shakespeare for small things where he can and trying to survive off food found in the wilderness and valuables salvaged from the shattered cities, and finds himself, as the book begins, just about to enter Oregon.

Perhaps because of its distance from the major trouble spots in the war, or perhaps just because enough time has passed since the destruction, Oregon is the most civilised place that Gordon has seen. It's a borderland. Times are harsh, but the potential for civilisation bubbles around the edges. It only takes one thing to make a big bubble of civilisation.

All it takes is a lie.

Gordon's lie is initially inadvertant. He's found an old postman's uniform and he needs the clothing. Stopping at a little village he finds that the people there are nice to him because of it. He offers a nice reminder of the old world they miss. They give him food, a soft bed, even sex. They also give him letters.

Gordon Krantz, in his small way, has been trying to peddle hope for a while now. Maybe that's why he's chosen to try to survive through a little one-man show, through art. He doesn't like lying, but hey, the next village is rougher and the people are nastier and he starts to feel like maybe lying to people like that would be justified. So he blazes right in as an official of the Restored United States. It's a scam. But he has the letters to prove it, and by life-saving luck, one of the ones from the previous village is to an old relative, now living in this village.

Soon Gordon has convinced others to become postal officials of this 'Restored United States' (It's too far off to communicate with us, just take the existence on faith. After all, I'm here, aren't I?). There's a whole chain of post offices, restoring communications between people who thought they'd lost each other and bringing the hope of civilisation wherever they go.

Then Gordon discovers that his lie is not the only one. There's a whole other civilisation further along, based on the hope of technology -- and on a big lie supporting that hope.

Partway through the book, Gordon starts to wonder if America was a lie to begin with. "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . " Really? Are you sure about that?

Is justice a lie? Are we lying to ourselves when we think that there exists a true notion of justice? Mercy, charity, morality -- are these lies? If so, then they are lies which make all our lives better and happier and more worthwhile, and my commitment to the truth must be hampered by my love and respect for such notions. But perhaps they are not lies. Perhaps we can say that morality and charity and justice exist because we believe in them. They are ideas, and ideas exist only in the human mind as a matter of course.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is not that the Restored United States is a lie, but that the mere idea of such a thing can cause so many true and good things to spring up. It's a sort of stone soup. The real substance is given by the people themselves.

What will save us? We will. But do we need to be lied to in order for that to happen?


yunshui said...

I think it's rather pessimistic to take the view that justice, morality etc. can only be brought into existence through falsehood. Mind you, Christian moralists would argue that such notions are founded on the Bible...

In its way though, The Postman is a very bleak book, for precisely the reasons you've outlined. Not only has the world gone straight to hell, but in order to redeem any of it, one has to lie to and deceive people. It's interesting that Brin, whose Uplift books have such a positive, hopeful slant to them, should have created such a damned-if-you-do,-damned-if-you-don't story.

Anonymous said...

I considered writing about this book in terms of Plato's Noble Lie, but took a different angle regarding mythology. Brin's book gives a lot to think about. I wouldn't be surprised if I revise my current thoughts about it sometime in the future.

Lynet said...

Actually, this book also has 'atheists' of the benevolent type. I only just noticed this but isn't that woman in the first village who knows Gordon isn't a postman but who still helps with the postal service and wants to start educating the children, etc -- doesn't she look like an atheist to you? She's much too smart to believe in the postal service, but, luckily, she's also smart enough to still believe in people. Maybe I should have focused this post on her.

Anonymous said...

I liked that woman too. It's interesting that Gordon kept writing letters to her; he really seemed to need her approval.

yunshui said...

Isn't she rather like one of those Uncle Tom atheists who thinks we should all just leave religion alone? You know, because it's nice and it makes people happy?

I don't like her.

Unknown said...

It's been a while since I've read the book. I wouldn't say our society needs to be based on a lie, but it does need to be based on some commonly held beliefs. If those beliefs are challenged (say by holding citizens captive while espousing the society is built on liberty) and upheld rather than the actions of the government fixed does it become a lie.

Gordon starts the lie as a benefit to himself, until he sees the benefit to the towns that he visits. He perpetuates the lie because he feels it's beneficial. In a real world I what are the chance it would have worked out so neatly. Could the lie have lead to more harm than good, despite his good intentions? Probably. But in a story the pieces usually come together.

Unknown said...

Oops.. That should have been:

"Only when beliefs are challenged (say by holding citizens captive while espousing the society is built on liberty) and upheld rather than fixed does it become a lie."

The Ridger, FCD said...

If you think about it, his lie leads directly to the death of lots of people - individuals. Brin is arguing, I think, that the result is worth the cost. This isn't "the end justifies the means", but rather that nothing valuable is free.

Perhaps Gordon's lie is necessary here because it's a short-cut: easier to say "Restored United States" than "hey, let's cooperate for a change! NEW United States, what do you think?"