The Postman and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Sometime last year I finally got around to watching The Postman on Netflix. I rather enjoyed it so I looked it up on Wikipedia, as I usually do with, well, anything, and found out it was based on a book. I received said book as a gift and finally read it last month.

I am generally interested in post-apocalypitica conceptually, and I absolutely love the Fallout games, but generally I find it lacking. I enjoyed The Book of Eli because it was well acted more than anything else. I despise A Boy and His Dog with every fiber of my being. I really like State of Decay, except for the occasional glitch that messes up the experience, but I already beat it so I can wait for some updates before I go back and get the rest of the achievements. Generally, I’m over zombies, which these days are the de facto apocalypse, which isn’t surprising to me but is boring.

What I generally find lacking about post-apocalyptic stories are two things: characterization, and society building. Now the first one is a problem I often have with speculative fiction: characters are frequently not that interesting or not the focus of the story. I Am Legend (the book, I haven’t seen any of the film adaptations) handled this well by having a well developed, interesting character who responds to his environment and grows as a person. That book also pretty much invented survival horror, so props.

The other problem is society building. Usually post-apocalyptic stories either don’t really engage it in, or they do so on a very superficial “everything is terrible” kind of way. Humanity instantly backsliding into barbarism and all that. As a historian and part-time world builder, this makes me sad, because the ways in which societies might change after a huge catastrophe are really interesting to me.

The Postman is pretty good on both these fronts. The main character is pretty interesting, and he not only responds to stimuli in the setting and story, but actually grows as a person. It’s not an action movie kind of story, and neither was the movie, which I think is part of why it wasn’t as successful as it could have been; there’s a lot of introspection and thought that goes into the character’s actions, although not in the whiny, paralyzed by indecision way many characters tend to be written these days (I’m looking at you, most of television).

And there is some good society building going on. There are a variety of settlements, each handling things differently, although a pseudo-feudal system of labor and tax in kind tends to dominate. The social structures are thought out and developed and they flow naturally from the setting and its past.

Now, David Brin is a conservative, a sort of mid-century, rational conservative who strongly laments what the movement has become, but a conservative nonetheless. Now, there is nowhere near enough room here to really address conservatism or its history, but long story short, Brin is the kind of conservative I like. To keep matters simple, I’m a liberal, but also kind of distraught over how the movement has developed, and also at Americans’ use of the word “liberal,” which historically doesn’t really describe me that well but, again, not enough space. Suffice to say, we disagree on some things, but he doesn’t fill me with the kind of frothing, blood-pressure ruining rage that a lot of “conservatives” these days do. I’m sure we could have a nice conversation and nobody would want to punch anybody.

So we disagree on some things, and there are some parts of The Postman that bug me (gender stuff, mostly) but not enough to keep my from enjoying the book and wanting to read more of his stuff. One thing where we are, actually, kind of eerily in agreement on are the Holnists.

So in the book (this doesn’t come through as clearly in the movie) there was this guy name Holn, who was this supreme survivalist, reject the government, all power should flow from violence, I love barbarous semi-fuedualism kind of guy. He was quite popular around the time that everything went to hell in the setting’s timeline, and kind of responsible for destroying America. It’s far more nuanced and interesting in the book, but that’s pretty much the three sentence summary. At this point, there are these terrible folks referred to as Holnists (or survivalists) that everyone hates and fears, barbarians at the gate who can rally hated rivals to put aside their feuds and kill the Holnists dead to the last man.

Brin wrote this book in the first half of the 1980s, and some of that comes through, but this angle is new to me, and I’m a guy who knows a fair amount about the social and psychological climate of the 1980s. Basically, these anti-establisment, anti-social gun nuts ruined America and turned it into a semi-feudal wasteland. Not the bombs, not the diseases, not the collapse of economic structures, but these paranoid gun nuts.

This is pretty interesting to me because, in rationalizing post-apocalypitic stuff after playing State of Decay, I struck on the thought that such a setting, especially one with zombies at the center, is sort of like a utopia for the most paranoid of gun nuts. Remember the people who wanted, after the Sandy Hook shooting and during the gun safety “debate” that occurred, to build a walled town in the mountains where everyone was required to carry a gun at all times? For people like that, a wasteland where every homestead is a castle, and every man a king (and this needs to be an incredibly patriarchal society for these people to be happy), is a utopia. They can be as militant as they like, rule with an iron fist, and kill all the strangers they want without the fear of laws or morals or society getting in their way.

I did come to these ideas after having seen the adaptation of The Postman, and this is an aspect of the movie, though not as prominently as in the novel, but my thinking had a lot more to do with the kind of people who threatened to revolt if their guns were taken away, not that anyone really set out to take their guns away (although as someone who doesn’t own, doesn’t want to own, and is incredibly uncomfortable around guns, I would have been okay with that, full disclosure).

In summation, The Postman is probably one of the most realistic portrayals of the “apocalypse” out there, I think it’s the most realistic I’ve ever seen, and that makes it a very good book. There’s also some amazing stuff in there about myth-making, but I’ll have to pass on discussing that now, since this post has gone on long enough as it is.

Upon completing Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Yesterday I was thinking about posting blogs on this site because, nominally, Owen Street Press is basically a vanity project allowing me to publish whatever I want. At the moment, my focus is on Giant Monsters Exciting Battle!, but eventually that will be done, and I’ll need to do something else. In the mean time though, I have things that I’d like to post about from time to time, and I figured “hey, why not start by ranting about how great a writer John Scalzi is.”

I’m not going to  grandstand and make statements like “He’s the Joss Whedon of novels,” or “He might be able to dethrone Terry Pratchett as my defacto favorite author,” or “Just how quickly can I buy his entire catalog of novels?” The answer to the last one is “by Monday, because I have Amazon Prime.” Or possibly, “by Friday, because I have an iPad with the Kindle app installed.”

But I digress.

My friend (who is also one of the first playtesters for GMEB!) handed me Fuzzy Nation on Tuesday, and she instructed me to read it. I had basically no experience of Scalzi’s writing; the extent of my knowledge about him was that A) he was on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop (a show I love and should blog about at some point), that B) he once got pizza in Chicago with Felicia Day (we’re Facebook friends, and she posted the picture on Instagram, it’s not weird), that C) he wrote a pretty good introduction to the 2009 edition of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (go read that book, right now, I can wait, if you’re like me you’ll read it in two days, and it’ll only take that long because your weak human body needs sleep) and that D) apparently he was a pretty good writer. D was pretty well undersold, thanks Internet.

She sold me on the book in part because it’s not part one of a googilogy (I think I just made that up?) of books. I love speculative fiction, but I don’t need or want to read about the same characters for a dozen books in a row. If I wanted to watch writers run characters into the ground for decades, I’d read superhero comics! ZING! Have I mentioned that I got a subscription to Marvel Unlimited the other day and I’ve been using it to start reading Fantastic Four, in order. Starting with issue #1?

I like stand alone novels, because even the best epic series can get bogged down. I’m looking at you, parts of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. I kid, I bought three copies of Dance and got them signed by Martin (two were for my friends, what would I do with all of them, build a house?).

She also noted that Scalzi writes characters who are people that you care about. This is my other beef with speculative fiction: it tends towards waxing on about settings and technology and kind of puts characters on the back burner. This is especially true of cyberpunk, which I love, conceptually, but have a hard time reading because, well, I just told you why.

The result of these feels about speculative fiction is that there are six books on my bookshelves right now with bookmarks in them, which I haven’t so much as been reading, as feeling guilty about not reading. I’ve found myself starting but not finishing books with alarming frequency lately.

I read Fuzzy Nation in two days (with a day in between). This is because it’s great, but also because it’s a nice, manageable size (341 pages), the pacing is perfect, and it’s great. I may be repeating myself. I hate spoilers more than anything that isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, so it’s hard for me to talk about the book much. I’ll say this though: I’m a historian, and a humanist, and a great lover of courtroom acrobatics in fiction, and this book did it for me. Did it for me like whoa. Imagine, if you are able, Tiny Tina (of Borderlands 2) describing something she loves. Now imagine I am saying these words, and the thing being described is Fuzzy Nation, and you will have an idea of what I mean.

To bring this down to a more stable level: the book is excellently written, with a pacing that makes you want to continue reading. The characters are interesting, their relationships are realistic, as are the ways in which they react to things. The twists do not come from nowhere, but are the logical conclusion of events that preceded them. It’s lean: there’s no padding, no extra verse, no bogging the reader down in details they don’t need, or expounding upon a setting at the expense of exploring characters. Scalzi does not rely upon violence to give the events of the book gravitas, there’s some violence sprinkled in there, but it’s violence the way a proper noir film uses it: sparingly, and chillingly. The social commentary is crisp, it’s not a club with which to pummel the reader, but nor will it miss its mark.

It was really hard not to make an Upton Sinclair joke with that last sentence. Although I guess I just did.

I remember at one point in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the characters, possibly Crow, said that a good movie makes you want to make your own movie (I think the movie being watched had the opposite effect). I’ve kept that as something of a mantra, but inserted various forms of media as appropriate. So a good movie, game, book, whatever, makes you want to create one of those things. Fuzzy Nation makes me want to write a novel. A good science fiction novel, with characters who are characters, and a plot that feels real and manageable. I won’t do this any time soon, of course, but bear with me. It also makes me want to read more of his work. That I think I can pull off sooner, rather than later.