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.

 

Dystopian Days: Divergent

divergentDivergent

Veronica Roth

HarperCollins Publishers.  2013.  487 pgs + bonus materials section.

Other books I’ve read by Roth:  none.  Divergent is the first book of a young adult dystopian trilogy.  The other books in the trilogy are Insurgent and Allegiant.

Well, two things to say:  one, I know I am the last person on earth to read this book and two, I loved it!  That latter statement is not cool to say for a serious reader, I guess.  So I guess I’m not a serious reader –and any way I don’t care.

Just in case I’m not the last person on earth who hasn’t read this, and one of my faithful Livritome readers is….the story line is the following (don’t want to give away everything):

  • Some incredible war (or plague?) has happened and the survivors (at least in Chicago, USA!) have decided to reorganize society into groups that represent the characteristics that may help prevent a future war.
  • The characteristics, or factions are:  Erudite (intelligence), Dauntless (courage), Amity (peacefulness), Abnegation (selflessness), and Candor (honesty).
  • All 16 year-olds complete an aptitude test to help them decide what faction they should chose to spend the rest of their lives in.  This may, or may not, mean leaving their birth families and parents forever (what 16 year old wouldn’t love that??)
  • After choosing, teens train intensely for initiation into their new faction.
  • Some folks may not fit just precisely into one faction, and that is a problem.
  • Some very unlucky folks are factionless — and this is quite a state to be feared.
  • War and unrest are brewing….

The novel follows Beatrice Prior, a girl from Abnegation whose choice of faction has dramatic ramifications for herself, her family, and several other key individuals.  Not only must Beatrice square her choice of faction with the suspicion that her aptitude test results actually point towards a more troubling future choice — but she must prepare herself to take part in a greater world struggle that is lining up outside of her individual concerns.  Along the way, Beatrice meets several other young people who are struggling with their faction choice, which includes a possibility of not being accepted by the faction if they do not pass initiation — a fear Beatrice also shares.

So much has been written about why dystopias are popular.  The attraction seems simple to me, especially for younger readers.  With so many dysfunctions in our current, real world – global warming, terrorism — the possibility of the world we know devolving into some other hideous form seems quite plausible.  Additionally, I think Divergent and the Hunger Games novels resonate as classic coming of age tales.  Leaving your family behind, finding your identity, participating in a mighty struggle — aren’t those themes as primal as fairy tales and legends of the past?  Roth has just added the wrecked Sears Tower and ghostly El trains to the mix.

I also liked the love story in Divergent.  Beatrice’ love-interest turns out to be a anti-hero with a tragic, dark past that only she understands.  How classic is that theme — Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, anyone?  Albeit with tattoos and a knack for jumping off moving El trains.

I guess it is the presence of these simple, archaic themes that sparked the criticism of Roth’s massive commercial success with Divergent.  Yes, and some of the characters are, to put it mildly, thinly drawn.  Having admitted this, I still would recommend this read.  It moved along briskly, it compelled and it presented a female hero I learned to care about.  For this non-serious reader the judgment’s on the book shelf:  I just bought the second book.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins.  Photo Credit:  Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins. Photo Credit: Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.