1980. Summit Books. 220 pgs.
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.