Interview: David Brin, author of “The Postman”

David Brin is an astrophysicist whose international bestselling novels include The Postman, Earth, and recently Existence. His nonfiction book about the information age—The Transparent Society—won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“The Postman” is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. A man who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared–who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

The novel was written as an answer to all those post-apocalyptic books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization’s fall–encouraging the reader or viewer to picture Mad Max adventures as some kind of romp. It’s a story about how much we take for granted–and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It just poured out of me, in three novellas and the combined novel. (Gordon is the only character in science fiction to come in second for three Hugo Awards.) Seriously, it seemed to write itself, coalescing from both pain and hope within.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

While writing this story, I realized this was my own trauma, growing up with daily dread of nuclear war, and a childhood knowing that every hope might vanish in a flash of atomic light. In a sense, “The Postman” was my answer to all that. We would persevere. Not as Mad Max road warriors or survivalist preppers, but as villages and towns, re-establishing links with each other. Trading knowledge and courage and a dream of making it all work again.

Despite all my reasons for disliking Kevin Costner, I have to admit two things. First, that his cinematography is among the most beautiful ever shot and brought to a screen. It is one of the most visually-gorgeous films ever.

But above all, he was faithful to that heart message of my original story. That a hero can matter, but only to the extent that he or she can rouse average people–our neighbors and fellow citizens–to rise up and be heroes, as well.

He nailed that. And the heart was the most important thing. And hence, I will defend both him and his flick to my dying day.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I studied and talked to the early survivalist communities … “doomsday preppers”, they are called today. A little speculative science. But not much was needed.

What is the appeal of apocalypse fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

There are two types. The best actually warn us about something that could happen, that’s plausible and that we haven’t considered hard enough. If Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error (CITOKATE), then good SF novels and films may play vital roles in our making it across the minefield into better times. This finest of these become “Self-Preventing Prophecies” … that so stir readers and audiences that they gird themselves to fight against that failure mode, and make it never happen.

Alas, there are chasms of difference between an effective dire warning and the flood of hackneyed dystopias that make up a majority of sci-fi films! In one of my most popular essays–“Our Favorite Cliché”–I dissected why your more typical Hollywood apocalypse flick tends toward mindless repetition of standard villains and set-piece plots–the sort of drivel that does no good, only demoralizing harm. It turns out that the reason for this plague of unimaginative sameness is something banal and completely avoidable–pure laziness!

What’s the fundamental duty of a fiction writer or director? To create compelling tension! You do that by keeping characters in jeopardy for the requisite 90 minutes of film. That can be hard to do, if the protagonist lives in a decent society, able to call 9-1-1 and get assistance from skilled professionals … or if her neighbors are competent citizens with enough guts and fortitude to step up and help. But directors and authors bypass that problem by ignoring either possibility. Nothing works, society is 100% corrupt, and your neighbors are all sheep! If you start off with an assumption of stupidity, the script almost writes itself, propelling along from one gruesome decapitation to the next.

There are exceptions! Great stories in which tension and jeopardy and action happen despite there being a decent civilization off-screen somewhere. (In every Spiderman flick, there’s one scene in which average New Yorkers step up and save Spiderman!) It can be done, if you do a little something called … writing.

Why are there so many dystopias and apocalypses … and so few dramas set in a future with even a scrap of hope? As I said, dire warnings are fine, if you are exposing us to something that truly will wake us up to an under-considered danger! Mostly though?

Lazy bums.

What are some of your favorite examples of apocalypse fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Great examples of “Self-Preventing Prophecies” would include of course Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Dr. Strangelove, and (I hope) Brave New World. All of these stirred millions to wake up, gird themselves, and fight against the story ever coming true.

Indeed, the biggest difference between a sane conservative and a liberal is which direction each sees Big Brother coming from! The conservative frets about growing Orwellian control by snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. The liberal sees tyrannical oppression arising from conniving oligarch-lords and faceless corporations.

Both sections of the threat horizon could happen! And many novels and Hollywood films portray both, reflecting the chief moral lesson in modern western mythology–suspicion of authority (SoA). It saturates almost all our legends. And that’s a good thing! When we are encouraged to peer skeptically at a potential threat.

It metastacizes into cancer when we forget to also contemplate the positive.

Not all self-preventing prophecies have to be realistic. Even highly implausible warnings, like The Handmaid’s Tale, at least do good by stirring strong motivation to fight injustice. Likewise, some environmental warning stories like Silent Running and Soylent Green exaggerate … but that’s okay, if the threat truly needs our focused attention.

On the other hand, have you ever read a Michael Crichton novel, or seen one of his movies, in which anyone even bothers to pick up a phone and dial 911? How many teen-sploitation flicks are about a “chosen one” who society is trying to force to conform to some scarecrow-silly pattern that makes no sense at all, and warns us of nothing plausible, even in exaggeration?

No, I am a big fan of apocalypse fiction. Just … could you make it interesting? And stop trying your best to undermine our belief that people can prevail.