Reading history and reviews
Finished on 16th October 2010Riddley Walker lives in a distant and bleak post-apocalytic future, where the inhabitants of former southern England scrape a grim living in a dark-age-like collection of isolated settlements. The technological achievements of our own times ("pictures on the wind" and "boats that fly") have been reduced to myths and legends, recounted by the "Eusa men" - government-sanctioned show people who travel between the settlements telling the story of how disaster (presumably a nuclear war) befell "back way back".
Against this backdrop Riddley narrates the story of how he flees the security of his village and becomes caught up in the schemes of different factions who either want to recover the lost knowledge and power of the former times, or suppress it - while at the same time trying to gain a greater understanding of the wider world he suddenly finds himself in.
Riddley writes in a corrupted dialect of English which is difficult at first to understand, and similarly the legends about the past (that is, our own world today) are also distorted - although unlike Riddley the reader is able to understand to a degree what the legends might refer to (even if like him we don't recognise the artefacts that he encounters). Without such an understanding, the characters attempts to recreate the wonders of our science are reduced to the repetition of literal rituals that we suspect are depressingly doomed never to work. At the same time however there is a sense that Riddley might lead a way to break with the dead-ended traditions - a dangerous path in his world, but offering a glimmer of hope for the future.
I first heard about "Riddley Walker" after reading an article about David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the central section of which (also set in a distant post-apocalyptic future and narrated in a corrupted dialect of English) inevitably invited comparison with Hoban's book. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two worlds however is that in Hoban's imagined future, even the familiar has been rendered unsettlingly alien - something that I found disturbing, almost frightening so.
"Riddley Walker" is a powerful book which I found deeply affecting, depressing and just a little hopeful. Well worth reading.