Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban

Available works by Russel Hoban


Set in a quasi-medieval world that can be traced to the County of Kent, United Kingdom, long after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of humanity, the tragicomedy Riddley Walker envisions a regressed post-apocalyptic society in the throes of repeating the past’s mistakes that often go hand in hand with striving for more advanced technology. Written in a phonetically corrupted version of English which has come to be known as Riddleyspeak, the novel is a masterpiece in of estrangement. It won the Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1982).

“Time back way way back befor peopl got clevver they had the 1st knowing. They los it when they got the clevverness and now the clevverness is gone as wel.”

The story follows Riddley Walker who is part of a small work crew salvaging iron from debris sites, melting down machines that they know neither the name nor the use for. In the highly superstitious society of farmers and hunter-gatherers, Riddley’s ‘miraculous’ escape from feral dogs turns him into a pariah and he is ostracised from his community. Forced to roam around Kent on his own, gradually he is caught up in a race to develop the blueprint for gunpowder.

Told in corrupted English from the point of view of Riddley Walker, who has a very limited understanding of the world to begin with, Riddley Walker is not only a frustrating read but it also asks reader to join Riddley’s struggle to decipher knowledge that has been corrupted by lost memory and typically lies hidden in complex myths, whether simple place names or basic science. Extracting hidden information, forming links between perverted understandings of science, underpins Hoban’s strategy of estrangement and serves as a clever narrative dynamic.

Creation myths are communicated by government licensed puppet shows which centre on the apocalyptic event known as the Bad Time. Nuclear physics is lost to the medieval denizens of Riddley’s world and yet the plays teach that the knowledge of dividing the ‘Littl Shyning Man the Addom’ – the splitting of the atom – was what caused the destruction of their world. The moral of these plays, and a clear reference to the Forbidden fruit in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, is nuanced and cuts to the core of post apocalyptic sentiments: man is dangerously wired to drive for progress. In a world where there are very few archaeological remains left from the past, the survival of something as small as a plague describing the 15th century wall painting of the Legend of St Eustace (the painting no longer exists), in Canterbury Cathedral, comes to play an disproportionate, albeit corruptive role in Riddley’s world view. The plague’s ‘figure of the crucified saviour’ is interpreted as the Littl Shyning Man the Addom’, and the ‘cross of radiant light’ is interpreted as the release of ‘wite shadders’ when the ‘Addom’ is divided. The ‘wite shadders’ that Riddley describes seeing on walls are a mystery to him, but in reality are the burn traces of human bodies. In a further perverse, round-about way the plague also becomes a blueprint for gunpowder. The words ‘figure’ and ‘saviour’ are read as references to the gunpowder ingredients of sulphur (which they call Salt 4) and salt (from unsavoury). The real tragedy in this tale of the-blind-leading-the-blind is that no one really knows that the holy grail they are searching is in fact gunpowder.

Riddley Walker has a lot in common with Gene’s Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-1983). Both narratives are spun around a post-apocalyptic society with only scant memories of the past. Both use language as a tool for estrangement and both centre on the quest of one person to renew society. Russel Hoban’s invention of Riddleyspeak has its precedents in George Orwell’s Newspeak from his novel 1984 (1948) and Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat from his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962). And just as Big Brother changes history as it sees fit in 1984, so the authorities in Riddley Walker do not shy away from tinkering with the direction of the Punch-and-Judy puppet shows in order to make changes to the morality enforced on society. Even Punch and Judy have been corrupted, as if they needed it.