The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Writing to Reach You (review: Post Apocalypse Dead Letter Office, Nathan Poell)

Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office
Nathan Poell
Oscura Press 2012

“Oh no”, you sigh, “not another post-apocalypse sci-fi muddle.” and toss the book on the ever-expanding 'to-read' pile. But wait, this one is different! Seriously, just give it a chance. Yes, it can seem that the shelves and screens of the world are awash with tale after tale of devastated humanity crawling from the ashes of its destruction, with zombie giants World War Z and The Walking Dead leading the charge, but thankfully there are authors like Nicholas Poell to keep breathing fresh life in what is at risk of becoming a stagnant genre.

Poell's Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office is a short, unique and refreshing tale of life in America following a mysterious disaster. Well, not a tale as such but a series of vignettes, snippets of life encapsulated in undelivered mail. Using this epistolary (bonus points for learning new words) format, first-time author Nicholas Poell manages to avoid the fate of many of his genre-mates, namely trapping us with the same motley crew of survivors and lending an often unintentionally claustrophobic air to proceedings. This is precisely what made Max Brooks' World War Z such a successful and gripping read. So why the letters? And what happened to the world?

The events of Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office unfold in the near future, at a date left cunningly unspecified although marked clearly enough by reference to past events remembered by survivors. The situation is bleak, yet hopeful. Some years ago a somewhat mysterious event occurred and left in its wake the most curious enigma. Overnight all generators of electricity ceased to do their job. All parts were in working order, the turbines of hydro plants whirred away as before, but those stubborn electrons refused to dance for us any more. Similarly all the gasoline in the ground, cars and even (somewhat disastrously) in aircraft instantaneously transmuted to sugar water.

Following this unforeseen calamity the world understandably fell to wreck and ruin. With no way to power any of the devices we have come to absolutely rely on – no motor transport, no internet, no lights, no refrigeration – society collapsed, panic and disorder grew, and soon the world was on its knees. Slowly the survivors organised themselves and one of the first problems to solve was communication. Without so much as a phone or telegram it fell to cyclists to fill the role of old-time mailmen, braving the dangers of cross country travel – bandits, wild animals, the environment itself – to carry pleas for help, vital information and plain old gossip from settlement to settlement. 

Inevitably there were accidents. Riders never reached their destinations, dispatches were stolen or lost, lazy staff ditched items to lighten their load, and this is how we gain our vantage point into this world. Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office consists simply of a series of undelivered letters from family member to family member, friend to friend, employee to boss and so on. There is no central thread running through the stories, although the letters work backwards, starting some time into the aftermath and slowly retreating back to the event which sparked the catastrophe.

The cast of characters we are introduced to include drug runners (the absence of government meant an abrupt end to the war on drugs so marijuana farms are commonplace), farmers (organic farming figures largely in the book, everyone must fend for themselves), cyclists trying to reach family and friends (horses are preferable but too expensive) and plain old citizens trying to get on with their new lives. One thing is clear – humanity still consists of the very bad alongside the good. However there is a wonderful feeling of hope permeating the book, a sense of purpose infusing the majority of characters which leads them to strive for their goals in a way which seems sadly absent from our own world much of the time. Adversity seems to bring out the best in many.

Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office is a short read, weighing in at barely over 200 pages and this is a double-edged sword. The brevity makes it easy for the book to ensure that it doesn't outstay its welcome and become a chore. However the concept and the world Nicholas Poell creates is simply too interesting for such a brief treatment. By the time the ending/beginning came – an ending which unfortunately seemed like a major cop-out and left me feeling a little cheated – I was already wishing for the book to magically extend itself. I wanted to know more of the farm projects, to explore some of the more lawless regions of the world, even somehow get a glimpse into life outside the US.

Even with these shortcomings I still recommend Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office to anyone interested in this genre, or indeed anyone with a love of cycling, farming or sustainability, the recurring major themes. The original letters are provided for your viewing pleasure at, rounding out a refreshing literary experience which may, hopefully, be expanded to a well-deserved expanded
outing in the future.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  Post Apocalypse Dead Letter Office is now available in bookstores (and is particularly cheap for e-readers).
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