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Postal Futures

A fundamental underlying enabler of both science and wider civilisation is the provision of an infrastructure for effective long-distance communication and information transfer. While electronic messaging currently dominates our information transfer, historically an efficient postal service has been considered critical. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of science fictions have considered the role and future of postal services [1].

Rocket Mail

In the mid-twentieth century, when rockets appeared to be the transport mode of the future, some authors tended to believe that rocket mail would become a common feature of the near-future. Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novel Rocket Ship Gallileo described efforts by a former Manhattan Project atomic scientist and a group of teenage boys to reach the Moon and return home safely. Almost as an aside, early in the novel, we learn that their world is one of uncrewed commercial rocket ships - including those routinely used for mail delivery between continents on Earth. Indeed the explorers’ own Galilleo starts life as an old trans-atlantic freight rocket sold for scrap, before being retrofitted for crew and with an atomic motor.

A more elaborate and less routine scenario is explored in another juvenile novel of the 1950s - Tas and the Postal Rocket by E. C. Eliott (??). In this story, a new postal rocket is designed to circumnavigate the world dropping and picking up mailbags without landing. Two of these crewed vehicles are designed to circumnavigate the planet in opposition, constantly in flight, and the book begins with the UK’s Postmaster General visiting the launching grounds at Woomera in Australia to celebrate the inaugeral flight of one rocket, while his Australian counterpart makes the reverse journey to launch its twin. Perhaps inevitably (given their track record in the earlier Tas and the Space Machine, Elliott, ??) two boys end up accidentally taking off in the Australian mail rocket. Being upstanding young men, they decide to do their duty and deliver the mail that has been loaded, before returning to Woomera - with limited success. A notable feature of this particular rocket is its mechanisms for mail retrieval and delivery. At its simplest, the latter involves dropping sealed mail bags into a giant net. At its most complex, the rockets are equipped with a device that is explicitly modelled on those mounted on railway trains in the past - these mechanisms hook the straps of mail bags onto a receiving pole, and scoop up other similarly mounted bags, without requiring the vehicle to stop.

“The other catcher was a much more elaborate affair. This one consisted of a metal framework bedded in concrete, and from the centre of the framework two long steel arms stretched out. At the end of each arm was an attachment that looked like a mechanical hand, with four fingers and no thumb.” …
“The guide went on to explain that for a bare second or two the arms of the rocket ship would touch the arms of the catcher. Each set of arms worked on strong springs and, as the rocket flashed past, the arms swung round and the clamp-like fingers fastened around the mailbags. When the arms of the postal rocket felt this pressure they released the mailbags, and so the operation was completed without the rocket having to halt or slow its speed as much as it would have to for the basket catcher.”

Extraterrestrial Mail

With local and global communications secured, it’s perhaps no surprise that some authors have explored the challenge of mail delivery to other worlds.

In the short story Postmark Ganymede by Robert Silverberg, an experienced scout pilot is reassigned to postal delivery, for reasons that never become entirely clear. He is initially resentful, particularly when his unarmed ship has to scurry to safety while the pilots of his armed escort vehicles must give their lives to secure his escape from pirates. Perhaps in consideration of this sacrifice, the unnamed protagonist delivers his mail sack to a beleagured colony on Ganymede, despite finding that it has suffered an invasion of giant slugs (which were hibernating when the moon was surveyed). Having completed his duty, he is able to take home word of the colony’s plight to the authorities, and has a new respect for the importance of this channel of physical communications and ensuring its continuity.

Postal services of this kind are often implicit or assumed in science fiction - particularly that produced before electronic communications became the norm. An interesting example is the Dan Dare Stamp Book. These “cindarellas” are gummed and perforated collectable stamps which are not issued by any postal authority or in any legal currency, but instead appear to be issued by the fictional authorities in the science fictional universe of the comic series Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, and refer to postal services between Earth, Venus and Mars. Other similar cinderellas exist for other science fictional universes - implicitly equating the provision of mail services with a plausible and well-realised story.

Travelling further afield, albeit a little less seriously, is Postman Bob in Guillaume Perrault’s graphic novel The Postman from Space (2020). In this narrative, originally written in French and published in Montreal, Canada as Le Facteur de l’espace in 2016, Bob has a bad day when he is assigned a new interplanetary delivery route, fraught with unfamiliar perils. The planets visited here are rather fantastic and implausible paragons of weirdness, but amongst the deliveries Bob makes are essential tools, vital companionship and important information. Indeed by the end of the book he realises that, in hindsight, he enjoyed the adventure that accompanied his excursion outside his comfort zone. Perrault’s sequel, The Biker Bandits (2021), covers much of the same ground but has the eponymous bandits trying to steal a presumably-valuable letter (which turns out not to be), before Bob can locate its intended recipient.

Curiously, space postal services appear to be popular in comics and graphic novels. Space Bastards by Aubrey, Peterson and Robertson was first published in 2021, with a first volume entitled "Tooth and Mail". This portrays a universe in which the Intergalactic Postal Service employs cut-throat mercenaries who compete violently for the substantial financial awards which accompany the successful delivery of a parcel. Unrelenting violence, profanity and sexual content make this a very different style of graphic novel, and very different target audience, to the more benign and wholesome Postman Bob in The Postman from Space!

Post Apocalyptic or civilisation-bounding mail 

An interesting feature of postal science fiction is its tendency to be associated with dystopian and post apocalyptic scenarios. This tendency started early with well-known author Rudyard Kipling’s rare excursions into science fiction, With the Night Mail (1905) and its sequel As Easy as ABC (1912). In these novellas, the Aerial Board of Control is a global authority responsible for running a network of international postal airships. These mail clippers are both the source of the ABC’s authority, and a weapon that can be used to implement its will. The dystopian elements of this scenario appear in the second story in particular, the postal ships of the ABC use their weapons against a rogue state with an ideology opposed to the global norm. However the first story, With the Night Mail, focusses on a reported transatlantic journey of a postal clipper, which includes violet storms, thrilling rescues and a race against time to deliver the mail. Fundamentally though, these fictions emphasise that controlling the source of communication in a civilisation or social structure is fundamental to controlling the civilisation itself.

While the Aerial Board of Control has been analysed as both a utopian future order and a dystopian nightmare, it was eclipsed by the catastrophic nightmares that haunted the later twentieth century.

 

The short story A Letter from the Clearys by Connie Willis (short story, 1982), begins with a girl searching a ruined post office for a missing letter. When she finds it, and reads it to her dysfunctional family, it rapidly becomes clear that the letter - initially a casual missive between family friends - is now a communication to the present from a gone-forever past. The world the letter describes has been destroyed by war - together with many of the people and places mentioned. The story, written from the perspective of an unreliable teenage narrator, revolves around concepts of communication and its breakdown, as well as emphasising the tangible memories that can be carried on something as simple as paper.

Seehttps://web.archive.org/web/20080719105918/http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/Clearywhite.html 

 

A more developed post-apocalyptic landscape, seen more than a decade rather than months or a few years after a nuclear exchange, is shown in the (very long) ?? feature film The Postman, based on David Brin’s book of the same name (dir. Costner). Here the focus is on a single lone wanderer between small surviving settlements, each of which is defensive and struggling to eke out a meagre living from the poisoned land. In both the novel and book, the protagonist finds the skeleton of a long-dead postal worker and dons his uniform, full mailbag and persona. On arrival at a nearby settlement, his claim that he is delivering a long-delayed letter to one of the residents gains him entry. Initially this claim is made to save his own life. However the idea that a restored United States postal service - and by extension - government might exist takes fire and he becomes an unwiling symbol of an entirely illusory return to national communications and authority [2]. While the novel and film diverge in their plot developement and scope, the key point is that the Postman, and those who respond to his appearance, bring hope and encourage the survivors to look beyond their walled settlements towards a return to long-distance communications, trade, wider social structures, an escape from local warlords, and ultimately a more civilised future. The process will be a long one, but is triggered by something as simple as the delivery of a single letter from the pre-war world. This is about the possibilities enabled by communication and the effect it can have on human mindset.

Interdimensional mail

Many of the same themes are echoed (and gently satirised) in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Going Postal (2004). Again the delivery of old letters, by a postman who isn’t all he seems, reflecting a resurgence of a state in decline, gives individuals hope for the future. Although this novel is very definitely a fantasy, it has science fictional elements, notably a transdimensional post office sorting machine which sorts and collates letters that might have been written in alternate worlds, as well as those that were written. Unfortunately, it is this machine which was largely responsible for the collapse of the original postal service, due in part to the sheer volume of mail it produced and in part to the difficulty in ensuring the mail delivery undertaken by the post office was restricted to letters actually written in the right dimension.

Curiously enough, interdimensional mail also has a long history in science fiction. The connection between time and space is explored, for example, in Hayford Pierce’s very short comic science fiction series “Mail Supremacy” (Analog magazine, 1975). Here the observation that the delivery time for letters is inversely proportional to the distance each has to travel leads a merchant to discover that mail to distant planets is delivered effectively instantaneously, and thus to correctly infer the existence of an interplanetary federation founded on the backbone of a faster-than-light interstellar postal union.

By contrast with Pierce’s amusingly accurate delivery of even the most unlikely letters, other authors have explored the concept of seriously misdirected interdimensional mail. “The Love Letter” is a 1959 short story by Jack Finney (filmed in 1998 as a Hallmark television movie), in which a piece of antique furniture acts as a conduit for a communication between a contemporary young man and a woman in the past. Each deposits letters in the table’s drawers, only for them to be discovered by the other, enabling them to engage in an ongoing correspondence. The desk thus acts as a postal delivery service that extends through time. The feature film The Lake House (2006) has a similar premise. Here a standalone mailbox acts as a similar time-travel conduit for the exchange of letters between two residents in the eponymous residence, despite their separation by a distance of two years.

 

A more risky and varied correspondence forms the core of This is How you Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (novel, 2019). This novel traces a secret romance between the ruthless and highly trained elite agents of two distinct and different paradigms for the future: one broadly technological while the other is ecological. Crossing numerous timelines, epochs and possible alternate realities, their courtship traces back to a single letter left on a battlefield, and continues through messages encoded in various other media, before eventually returning to pen and paper. While this story does not include a postal service, it stresses the power of communication. As one character notes: “Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside”.

 

Both Finney’s short story and the films The Love Letter and The Lake House are more fantasy romance than science fiction, and no serious attempt is made to explain the mail-based time travel, while in This is How you Lose the Time War the technology is so advanced as to fall under Clarke’s Law and remain equally obscure. Indeed, in most stories of letters sent between times or parallel realities, the letters are transferred by accident or by a quirk of fate, rather than by the deliberate actions of a postal service.

Real world Mail services

Given science fiction’s interest in communication and the transfer of ideas, it’s perhaps little wonder that it has considered so many alternate postal services. In return, the world’s postal services have not been oblivious to the potential of science fiction.

Both Kipling’s portrayal of postal air clippers and the postal rockets portrayed in the 1950s and 60s were firmly founded in the tendency of the real post offices to stretch the limits of available technology. Many of the fastest and most advanced ocean vessels and aircraft of their times were chartered as postal carriers, famously including the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic.

When the railway network spread across the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail was quick to create the idea of a travelling post office, with the first sorting carriages appearing in 1838. These were able both to collect mail from multiple locations and sort the incoming deliveries while en route to their destinations. As Elliott’s characters explicitly noted in Tas and the Postal Rocket (described above), a development of this was the idea that trains wouldn’t even need to stop to collect mail from a collection paint, but instead could use a line-side mailbag exchange apparatus. Such mail exchange apparatus remained in use as late as 1971. The extension to rocket delivery was perhaps only natural. https://www.gbps.org.uk/information/sources/staff-handbooks/Rules%20for%20Working%20Lineside%20Mail%20Apparatus%20(1947).pdf

 

In keeping with that ethos of embracing modern technology, uncrewed rocket delivery of post was experimented with in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Germany, and was demonstrated in the 1930s in locations as disparate as India and the Scottish islands. In the United States, private operators experimented with rocket mail between the 1930s and 50s, but the best known experiment was conducted by the US Post Office, which established a sub-office on a Navy submarine, the USS Barbero, which launched mail by retrofitted nuclear missile to the Florida coast in 1959, successfully delivering it after a twenty minute flight. However, although some of these efforts met with technical success, none led to a commercially viable regular service. The missiles used were often difficult to direct accurately and couldn’t guarantee the mail a soft (or even intact) landing at their target. Where more advanced rockets were launched, the cost and complexity of the effort was deemed prohibitive. As a result the rocket mail of Heinlein and Elliott has gone the way of other optimistic predictions for a rocket-driven future [4].

 

However postal services have continued to recognise the inspiration and cultural impact of science fiction. In 1995 and again in 2021, the UK’s Royal Mail released collectable commemorative stamps on the theme of British science fiction, while specific issues have celebrated key examples such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek and the works of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The US Postal Service has also released stamps celebrating Star Trek, Star Wars and individual authors such as Ursula K Le Guin. Numerous authors and topics have been commemorated by other postal services around the world, including giants such as Jules Verne, Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Nigel Kneale and many more.

Carriers of Enlightenment

A reliable and (to the limits of possibility) rapid form of communication over long distances has been fundamental to every major civilisation in Earth’s history. The Aztecs and Incas, Roman, Egyptian, Mughal, Chinese and even British Empire all established trusted messenger networks designed to carry information from one region to another, while trading confederations such as the British and Dutch East India Companies, or the earlier Hanseatic League, also prioritised communication routes. The communication networks - both civil and commercial - established across Europe in the early modern period were crucial to the development and advance of the Enlightenment - natural philosophers, experimenters and thinkers were able to exchange both ideas and information through the common language of Latin and via frequent correspondence.

Even to the current day scientific research remains international by nature and design. Many of the most eminent journals continue to be framed in one way or another as Notices or Letters - in other words a mechanism for communicating and disseminating information, but one reliant on the ability to publish and receive copies continents away from their point of origin. Now reliant on the internet, centres of learning and authority have also traditionally been hubs for correspondence [3], and most universities still retain external postal hubs and internal snail-mail systems.

The civilisation-bonding, or even civilisation-restoring, characteristics of mail services are a running theme through the examples discussed above, together with the importance of clear and reliable communications in the modern world. Mail services of one kind or another - whether through email, instant messaging or package delivery from online suppliers - remain fundamental to our way of life and to the functioning of our society. Science fiction gives a window into how this critical role has been perceived over time, and how it might be projected into the future. Inevitably, the future we now face has diverged from that which could be imagined by the earliest writers, such as in With the Night Mail, and even by some more recent speculation.

The powerful image of a physical letter - passed from one hand to another and sharing touch and experience by proxy - nonetheless continues to evoke strong emotion in examples such as The Postman, A Letter from the Clearys, Going Postal and This is How to Lose the Time War. There will likely always be a place for a physical mail service, although whether it will reach the interstellar scales of Pierce’s Mail Supremacy or Perrault’s Postman from Space remains to be seen. In the meantime, writers are free to continue to speculate and - just possibly - to send in their work accompanied by letters of their own.

 

“Postal Futures”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog. 14th July 2024.


Notes:

[1] My thanks to my father, noted philatelist Len Stanway, for inspiring this topic. 

[2] Another postman apparently serves a similar role in Niven and Pournelle’s catastrophe novel Lucifer’s Hammer, where the president’s postal carrier is the only conduit to the local crime boss he needs assistance from in maintaining order.

[3] An interesting science fiction recognition of this can be found in “The Embassy”, a 1942 short story written by Donald A Wollheim (appearing in Astounding under the pseudonym Martin Pearson), and adapted as a play for radio anthology series Dimension-X and X-Minus-One by George Lefferts. Here a private investigator is sent in search of the secret Martian Embassy which their client reasons must be located “in downtown New York, close to newspapers, publishers, news cables, communication centers and the financial powers of Wall Street.” Set to track postal delivery of news and scientific journals, he locates first the New York Central library, and then his rather dangerous target.

[4] As an aside, though, the idea has never really gone away. A 2017 episode of the UK cartoon series Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service had the eponymous character delivering a red rocket - first suspended under a helicopter and then from the rocket cockpit. Another episode in the same series was space themed, with Pat discussing his childhood ambitions to go into space, while delivering a space suit to a children's activity day.