Riddley Walker

RiddleyRiddley Walker

Russell Hoban

1980.  Summit Books.  220 pgs.

Guardian 1000 Novels: Science Fiction.

Other books I’ve read by Hoban:  none.    After the disaster of American Gods, I knew I had to get right back into the Guardian 1000 novels, and try to choose another science fiction or fantasy title — a category that I will admit I’m not that fond of.  What was the result?  A random selection of Riddley Walker and I could not have been happier with it.  In fact, reading Riddley restored my confidence in the Guardian reading challenge’s main premise:  to expose me to books that I would not have chosen to read.  This was certainly the case with Riddley, which I had never heard of.

This is a dystopian novel, set several thousand years after a nuclear war, or nuclear event of some kind–an event that through clues we conclude must have occurred sometime in the 1990’s.  The surviving society is a mix of hunter-gatherers, farmers (or “formers”), and folks engaged with simple-industry activities:  charcoal burners, dyers,  and work gangs who dig up pre-nuclear event iron and metal items to melt down.  Many folks live in simple settlements surrounded by fences.  Life is rough, crude and dangerous.  Being “dog et” is a common fate as dogs have reestablished their previous antagonistic or at least uneasy, relationship with people as wild scavengers or predators.  Some characters in the book, including its main character, have the gift of being “dog frendy” which sets them apart as special.  There is some sort of central government that seeks to control and communicate by sending out official — get this — puppet shows.  “Connection men” are allowed to interpret the shows for the common folks.  The message is a confused mix of spiritual, superstition and ignorance, as well as the garbled mix of the legend of an old Catholic saint, Eustace, (known as “Eusa” throughout the novel) and events of the nuclear war.

Riddley Walker, twelve years old and now considered a man in his world, is chosen to become the new “connection man” after the death of his father in an accident involving digging up old iron.  Riddley’s dad had been a connection man and while Riddley is ready to take up the challenge, he doesn’t have the knack of his father’s cryptic but telling interpretations of the traveling “Eusa” shows.  What Riddley does have is a thirst for knowledge, the ability to read and write, and the willingness to connect with others who can help him understand his violent and confused world.  Eventually Riddley becomes aware of a plot among several factions to obtain the ingredients and recipe for gunpowder — a path that Riddley wisely concludes to reject realizing that it only leads to the same deadly path that brings his world full circle to the nuclear option:

“The onlyes power is no power.”

One of the amazing things about this book is Hoban’s use of his own made-up dialect.  It’s supposed to depict an evolution of English 2,000 years into the future — a language now used by a simple, dark-age like society — but still with echoes of a former technologically complex world.  So Riddley will refer to “programming” something if he means that it came to his mind, or it was expected.  “Blipful”, like “blips” on a screen means something exciting.  My edition lacked a full glossary, but I found this website really helpful in deciphering all of this and trying to understand some of the references Hoban makes:  Riddley Walker Annotations.   Some editions of the book (like this one in the picture from Goodreads) actually have a glossary.  It’s not that the language is too difficult, you get used to it, but passages such as this — from a critical point in the novel when Riddley and a government “hevvy,” Goodparley, have a difference of opinion about the use of “yellerboy” (sulfur) do take some deciphering:

“Goodparley said, ‘Watch how he does it Riddley,’

I said, ‘I don’t want to know.’

He said, ‘Eusas sake be you simpl or what?  The way thingsre going it looks like every 1 in Inlands after the yellerboy and the knowing of what to do with it.  Somewl have 1 and somewl have the other and somewl have the boath.  And them what dont have nothing theywl be out of it.'”

Goodparley’s insistence on using the sulfur leads to an explosive climax for the novel.  I was left haunted by Riddley Walker and I wanted to know more about what happened to him, and his world.  Hoban’s message, that the only power is no power is as relevant now in 2016 as it was in 1980.  It is also as ignored.


American Gods

amgodsAmerican Gods

Neil Gaiman

2011.  I attempted to read:  the author’s “preferred text” or Tenth Anniversary Edition, comprising 541 pages — complete with postscripts, acknowledgements, and appendix.

Guardian 1,000 Novels: Science Fiction.

Okay, I made it to page 285.

I will freely admit I have no idea of what this book was about or what Gaiman was trying to tell us.  Can I change the focus of this blog to be Guardian 1,000 novels I attempt to read?  If I give them an honest try?

Because I will state that I certainly tried with this book.  I slogged through it.  I thought about it when I wasn’t trying to read it.  It haunted me a bit when I dropped asleep after plodding through a couple of pages at bed time.

What I got out of it was this:  the people who came to America — or were forced to come to America — brought their gods with them.  Or perhaps, the gods followed the people.  So, Odin (Mr. Wednesday, get it?), Thunderbird, the Easter bunny, Anansi, and all their ilk are still with us and they are sad and unhappy that they are no longer worshiped as is their due.  A human being, Shadow, who just got out of prison is hired by Wednesday to be a kind of body guard and bouncer.  Shadow has his own troubles seeing that his beloved wife, Laura, died just as he was released from prison.  Unfortunately, Laura keeps coming back from the dead to communicate with and try to help Shadow.  For there is a war of some kind brewing between the gods, or the forces of whatever.  And somehow this is about America…..

And that’s it for me.  I found this book unpleasant, unsettling and worse of all — boring.  I also know by now that a spot on the Guardian list is no assurance that I will enjoy it.  But life is too short, and the Guardian list too long for me to stay stuck on one book — no matter the accolades it has received.  Did anyone else out there love this one?  What did it say to you?