Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Russell Hoban, "Riddley Walker"

Russell Hoban's 1980 novel has never gone out of print and retains a far-flung readership of people who like really weird books. It is the sort of book that people have written whole books to explain, the explanations longer than the original text. I found Riddley Walker to be hard to read but somehow remarkable, and as I sit here thinking it over I can't make up my mind if the struggle through it was worth it or not.

Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old boy who lives about 2,000 years after the nuclear apocalypse that destroyed our civilization. His world is sort of an Iron Age, except that rather than making iron from ore people dig it out of destroyed cities. The book is a struggle because of the language, an invented notion of English as it has decayed among people who have lost most of their learning but somehow retained words for things that no longer exist. For example a plan is called a "program," "inputs" refers to things people learn, and "outputs" to what they make out of the inputs. People figure things out by "Spare the mending and tryl narrer." The book starts like this:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben one for a long before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

Most of the language is like this, not that much changed, but in other places it requires an effort to decipher.

The action in the book revolves around puppet shows. Without books, this is how people preserve whatever they remember from the past. The leaders of what passes for their government spend much of their time traveling around the land – which is Kent, in England – staging puppet shows in which they both teach the old lore and provide new interpretations in keeping with their current policy. The main puppet show concerns Eusa, their folk anti-hero. It was Eusa who, because he had too much cleverness, pulled the little shining man named Addom apart, unleashing the Bad Time. In punishment for this crime Eusa has to spend the rest of his life wandering from place to place, driven away with beatings from every town, until he ceases to be just a villain and assumes the part of a long-suffering everyman, passing on nuggets of hard-won wisdom.

The Eusa show describes the pre-apocalypse world like this:

Counting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fraction out the Power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting clevverness is what it wer.

There is a plot, but this is where the mystery comes in. On the surface the story seems to concern Riddley's discovery that a bunch of old rhymes about Eusa actually encode the formula for gunpowder. This formula is extracted by certain bad people, who start using it to kill each other. They call this the 1 Little 1, as opposed to the 1Big 1 that was the nuclear apocalypse. There is also a lot of petty village politics and various attempts to gain knowledge by shamanistic methods.

But I finished the book convinced that this was just a shell of some kind over a deeper meaning. Which, as I said, others have tried to elucidate in book-length treatises. On the other hand, maybe I am just overrating Russell Hoban, and the plot about gunpowder was deep enough for him. Looking back, I can't decide.

One thing I will say about the book is that the invented language sometimes gives rather conventional sentiments a striking force. Riddley is a young moralist who worries a lot about how he should act and how he should understand the world, and written in Riddley-speak these musings are very fine.

I cud feal it in the guts and barrils of me. You try to make your self 1 with some thing or some body but try as you wil the 2ness of ever thing is working agenst you all the way. You try to take holt of the 1ness and it comes in 2 in your hans.

I'm not sure if I recommend this book or not, but if you're in the mood for something different you might give it a try. It certainly has thousands of rabid fans.


G. Verloren said...

Two thousand years pass in a Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age setting and people are still using the same language with only minor changes in terminology and no drastic grammatical, syntactic, or even pronunciation shifts, and no other languages displacing it or new languages being formed in all that time?

Two thousand years pass, and they have to resort to puppet shows to transmit knowledge because no one reinvents paper, papyrus, or even clay tablets?

People discover a formula for gunpowder hidden in old story rhymes (who put it there? why? HOW?) and it causes a problem because only the bad people know the formula? Why can't other people figure it out from the commonly known rhymes?

Were people somehow unable to kill each other prior to this by just using pointy sticks and sharp bits of metal, as we've done for literally all of history? Why would the rediscovery of gunpowder -increase- the amount of bloodshed, rather than just mark a shift in which weapons were being used to carry it out?

How are the limited number of "bad people" who know the secret formula able to manufacture gunpowder in anything like useful amounts? Where are they getting the necessary ingredients? How do they even know what those listed ingredients are, or where and how to harvest / synthesize them? If you know that gunpowder requires nitre, but you don't have the first clue what nitre itself is or where it comes from, the formula it appears in is still useless to you!

How are they manufacturing guns? If people don't even a system of writing, surely they don't somehow still retain advanced metallurgy? You need a ton of precursor knowledge to work impure scrap iron from ruins into firearms grade steel! You need to know how to make forges that can get hot enough; you need to know how to process out impurities; you need to know how to properly temper; you need to know what ingredients to add to create the right kinds of alloys; etc, etc, etc! You can't just melt scrap iron and cast it into a tube shape and call it a day!

What kind of guns are they even making? Massive and crude copper / brass / gunmetal bombards and the like could be feasibly produced, but those require the wealth, manpower, and logistical capabilities of entire empires - not a small cabal of "bad guys" with a secret formula for gunpowder. Besides, such weapons are strictly military usage and restricted to seige warfare.

They could perhaps be producing some very simple and crude matchlock guns... except that requires they also know how to produce match cord and locking mechanisms! Did the secret formula convenient include that information too? I suppose they could do away with the locks and just manually fire the guns via touch-holes, but that makes an already slow and awkward personal firearm even slower and more awkward.

I just can't suspend my disbelief enough. One after another I keep spotting glaring fundamental problems with the foundational conceit of the world as described, and it just...

It gives the impression that the book's worldbuilding is cheap, shallow, and concerned more with smug pretension than with any real message, meaning, or compelling idea. It makes me not want to touch the book with a ten foot pole, because I suspect it's all form and no substance - obsessed with build up an esoteric aesthetic, while wholly ignoring basic logic and sense.

Shadow said...
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Shadow said...

Let me try this again. Want strange, weird, circular, and recursive? Try Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany. Read it years ago and have yet to come across anything close to it.