In the book on which Kevin Costner’s new big-budget movie is based, it’s a Jew who doesn’t allow rain, dark of night – or apocalyptic war – to keep him from his appointed rounds.
IN HIS LATEST POST-CATASTROphe (and we’re not just talking box office) movie, “The Postman,” actor-director Kevin Costner plays a variant of the “Man with No Name” archetype popularized in Westerns.
This is interesting, though the plot of this $ 80-million post-doomsday science-fiction movie, which The New York Times dismissed as “cloying” and “sentimental,” seldom does more than rehash, albeit with some new twists in political perspective, the familiar themes of a literary subgenre as old as sci-fi itself.
But the 1985 novel of the same name by David Brin – which won or was short-listed for a whole slew of science-fiction awards – offered a twist that didn’t quite survive the transition to celluloid.
As conceived by Brin, Costner’s character does have a name. And as Brin told The Jerusalem Report in a recent series of interviews conducted by E-mail, in the original book, the Costner character, who unwittingly inspires a rebellion against a racist feudal army of stockpiling survivalists, is deliberately and decidedly Jewish. In this regard, he is reminiscent of the founder of the Catholic Order of Leibowitz in Walter M.Miller’s classic 1960 after-the-Bomb fable, “A Canticle for Leibowitz.”
In Brin’s post-catastrophe America (which anticipated the actual militia movement), Gordon Krantz ekes out a precarious living posing as the official representative of a supposedly restored federal postal service. Delivering mail among scattered strongholds just barely hanging on after more than a decade of war, plague and assorted ecocatastrophes, Krantz gains free passage through a blasted landscape, and occasional sustenance from the decent, if justifiably fearful, folks he meets along the way.
But eventually, these besieged communities (which, this being a Hollywood production, all appear to have retained ample access to modern dental care) begin to see Krantz as a symbol of hope. If the mails are running again, how long before some of the other amenities of civilization- like TV, freeways and even the flying of the now-illegal Stars and Stripes – make a comeback as well?
And who best to lead the way if not the embodiment of what was once euphemistically known as “cosmopolitanism” – that stalwart of apocalyptic literary mythology, the Wandering Jew?
Brin, 47, is the son of Herb Brin, the founder and publisher of “Heritage,” a small, Los Angeles-based independent Jewish newspaper chain that has been defending Israel in print for half a century. An astrophysicist by training, during the 80s David emerged as one of the leading practitioners of a science-driven subgenre of science fiction known as “hard (core)” SF.
Brin’s second novel, “Startide Rising,” won the coveted Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 1980, as did a sequel, “The Uplift War”(1987). The authoritative “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” calls “Startide Rising,” about a starship crewed by genetically enhanced dolphins and humans, “one of the most rousing space operas ever written.”
Other Brin novels include “Earth” (1990), possibly the first work of fiction to anticipate the impact of the yet-to-be invented World Wide Web, and several others set in the popular “Uplift” universe of man-dolphin-ape interdependence, notably “Brightness Reef” and “Infinity’s Shore.”
But Brin insists that “The Postman,” an uncharacteristic venture into the realm of “soft,” or more sociologically oriented, science fiction, sprang directly out of his own uniquely Jewish experience coming of age in Los Angeles.
“GROWING UP JEWISH IN CALifornia in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Brin, “was probably different (from) any other Jewish experience in history.
Except for brief and rare encounters with true anti-Semitism, it felt safe, secure, unthreatened – except for the ever-present danger of nuclear annihilation that everybody shared, Jew and Gentile alike.”
I felt truly American. That is not to say that there was ever a temptation to assimilate, or forget my roots. That would not have been in question, even if my father had not been a prominent Jewish journalist. Rather, that sense of safety provoked reflection. It struck me as somehow bizarre – almost surreal – against the backdrop of violence and persecution of the last two thousand years. And especially the death of so many cousins, whose passing in the Holocaust predated my comfortable birth.
“It occurred to me that something special might be taking place. Perhaps a new kind of civilization. I looked around me and was appalled to see how many Americans – and especially Jews – did not seem to grasp how special this nation was, in the context of human societies.”
We took for granted things that would have seemed miraculous in ages past – flying through the sky, making light fill a room with the flick of a fingertip, living and working in places where your grandparents would never have been allowed. A flawed civilization that seemed ever conscious and self-critical of its flaws.
“I suppose that is where the germ of ‘The Postman’ came from – and its Jewish main character. It seemed to me that no one was talking about how much we would miss all the little things, if this civilization ever fell. Little things like electricity, tolerance…and the mail.”
Brin acknowledges that Krantz, more than most, may pine for the old American order precisely because of the unparalleled protection it afforded to Jews. And as Krantz discovers in a not-so-brave new world overrun by the followers of a militia-era white supremacist called Nathan Holn, once society crumbles, Jews, African-Americans and other minorities become fair game.
Not, says Brin, that Jews in the Diaspora – and of Israel’s fate in this scenario there is no mention – don’t contribute to their own vulnerability.
“Our geniuses almost always put some big-mouthed Jew in a prominent position in almost any ideology,” he observes, “from laissez-faire capitalism (Milton Friedman) to socialism (Karl Marx), giving opponents a chance to vilify ‘Jews’ as responsible for their pet hate.”
BUT THERE IS STILL ANOTHER reason for his having made the Postman a Jew, despite Costner’s directorial decision to universalize the character and his cultural predicament.
“Jews are forbidden, by dietary laws, ever to become hunter-gatherers!” Brin says. “Hunting is extremely difficult to do kosher. (But) this can be taken (also) as an injunction to protect civilization.” Krantz symbolizes that civilization and its amenities, which are almost wiped out in the apocalyptic scourge that anticipates the action of the book and the movie. The Jews will not simply be able to pick up a gun, or bow and arrow, in order to feed themselves. Brin: “We do not have an option, if (civilization) falls.”
Fans of Brin’s fiction will note his other uses – some more fleeting than others – of Jewish themes and characters.
In “Startide Rising,” these were subtle. In one scene, a character intones Kaddish over the dead. In another, one of the dolphins implies that he had been circumcised while converting to Judaism. But it wasn’t until “Heart of the Comet,” co-written with fellow physicist and hard SF-writer Gregory Benford that he would place another type of Jew – an Israeli this time – at the heart of a novel.
“Heart of the Comet,” says Brin, “portrays the possibility of a second Diaspora in the next century. In the novel’s background, many Jews still live in Israel, but they have kicked out the secular Jews and those whom they call ‘Pharisees’ (Jews who maintain belief in the democratic rabbinical tradition).
“The Jews who remain in Israel have joined forces with fundamentalist Christians and an Islamic sect in order to rebuild the Temple and reinstate the Cohenic priesthood. My character, Saul Linowitz, reflects on his sense of banishment and loss, and how much he misses his Sabra homeland.
“The novel is actually the most Biblical of my books in its tone, since it depicts a tribe of humans – eventually led by Saul (like a new Moses) -who have been cast out to the desert of space, where they must make a new society, in a new promised land.”
Although Brin himself does not feel that the transformation of “The Postman” into a major motion picture has brought him quite into the promised land of Hollywood fame – it took him 12 years since the rights were optioned just to meet the executive producer – he is quite pleased with the film.
“It’s a good movie that deals with important issues and is more faithful to the book than I’d have imagined at any point in the last decade. It is also visually one of the most beautiful motion pictures in years.
“I might have had an idea or suggestion to contribute, if asked. But it’s vastly more important that Costner ‘got’ the basic message of the book. If he wants to make changes – the movie’s ending, for instance, is all his – the man who brings $ 80 million to the table can make changes! As long as the heart is still there.”
One thing is certain. The right wing will hate Costner for slapping down the militia-solipsist movement and (the idea of) tolerance under the protection of the U.S. flag. Cynics will carp against the ‘goody’ morality tale.
“Too bad. A 95-percent-terrific movie is a terrific movie. Moreover, in these days of solipsism, when so many people claim to despise our civilization, the message Costner is telling needs to be heard.”
Originally published on February 5, 1998, in The Jewish Report