July 4, 2011
I recently finished reading Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. It’s a very interesting book. I want to talk about what makes this book unlike other science fiction books. Too many sci-fi and fantasy books try to create a world. This can be really beautiful and enchanting, but people are always more compelling than places. Riddley Walker works so well because it’s about Riddley and not about setting.
To briefly summarize the plot, it is set in a second Iron Age in England. The world blew itself up with nuclear weapons, and the population was decimated. During these “Bad Times”, culture and society went through a break down. Now many years later, we watch our protagonist Riddley Walker become a connexions man and set off on his own. A connexions man is a pseudo-mystic who delivers a sermon following the government run puppet shows. Anyway, in the course of the novel we see Riddley grow up and become his own man.
One more thing about the setting. The break down of culture was so extreme that even language suffered. The entire book is written in a devolved English. At first I felt this was gimmicky (as Hubert Shelby Jr’s dialogue in Requiem for a Dream is), but after a while I realized that it was not. It’s the dialect of the time and as the book is written by Riddley, it only makes sense that it should be in his own words.
This dialect immerses us in the world, but it is all filtered through Riddley. His character is very fleshed out, and so we feel for him when he leaves his home. We understand his confusion about the Puter Lite (computer elite) or rather their horrifically inbred descendants. Since Riddley is the lens through which we see this world, when we accept Riddley as realistic, we accept his world as realistic. This is why the book has such staying power, as can be seen in its Wikipedia entry and in a third-party website devoted to its analysis. I want to touch on this idea again later by discussing The Walking Dead comic book series, which has been running for eight years.