Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Flashback Reviews: Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker, written by Russell Hoban and published in 1980, is probably one of the weirdest books I've ever read.  In fact, I'm prepared to say that I didn't understand it completely, and there were parts I didn't enjoy.  So why am I reviewing it now?  Of all the sci-fi books I read as a kid, this one has stuck with me the longest.  It's a strange and haunting book, but not necessarily an accessible one.

The story is set in England, long after an apocalyptic nuclear event that has blasted the world back to the stone age.  Humanity has lost its grip on modern civilization, and the current religion is a hodgepodge of Celtic myth and Christian legend, communicated by Punch-and-Judy puppet shows and allegorical fireside tales.  St Eustace (Eusa, according to Riddley) is a prominent mythological figure and the legend of his life inspired Hoban to write the book.

Technology has devolved, and so has language...in fact, the whole book is written in Riddley's thickly accented dialect, words spelled phonetically and occasionally not very close to the original.  I had to read some sentences out loud a few times before the meaning clicked.  This will either fascinate you (as it did for me), or drive you bonkers, so reader beware.

Despite this, Riddley is an engaging narrator; he's clever (or is that clevver), and it's interesting to watch his ideas evolve.  Occasionally he struggles with how to express himself.  At one point, he says:
"I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stanning stoans and ther backs wil talk to you. " (if this quote made you want to claw your eyes out in frustration, then I'd recommend avoiding the book!)
One of my favorite theological discussions in sci-fi literature happens right at the beginning of the book - page 6, in fact.  It's poignant and colors the rest of the novel, giving Riddley surprising depth in a hard-scrabble setting where life is the classic Hobbesian "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."   Riddley may be a product of his devolved world, but he's not primitive.

This book isn't for everyone.  But if you're willing to take it on, there are a lot of gems here.  


Links of interest:

A better summary than I've given
An Interview with Russell Hoban on RW
Riddley Walker Annotations (very helpful - wish I'd had this when I read it.)
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (references the book...plus, a Sci Fi Sweetheart recommendation for the sheer camp of it!)


  1. This sounds really interesting, but I can't see myself getting to it for a long time. :( Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz?

  2. I haven't, although they've been compared to each other elsewhere. I'll look it up.

    It's definitely not a casual read, if that makes sense, so waiting for the time to read it is a good idea anyway :)