By Russell Hoban
Dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction ha become a specific genre of fiction, producing a number of exceptional book in recent years – The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace, and The Book of Dave by Will Self are two impressive examples. The latter is not alone in recognizing its debt to a lesser-known novel published in 1980 by Russell Hoban entitled Riddley Walker. As summarized in Wikipedia, the book
“…is set about two thousand years after a nuclear war has devastated world civilizations. The main action of the story begins when the young narrator, Riddley, stumbles upon efforts to recreate a weapon of the ancient world. The novel’s characters live a harsh life in a small area which is presently the English county of Kent, and know nothing of the world outside of “Inland” (England). Their level of civilization is similar to England’s prehistoric Iron Age, although they do not produce their own iron but salvage it from ancient machinery. Church and state have combined into one secretive institution, whose mythology, based on misinterpreted stories of the war and an old Catholic saint (Eustace), is enacted in puppet shows.”
Apart from the interest of the story, the most engaging aspect of the book is Hoban’s creation of a debased, “non-standard” English that has replaced the standard English of today. Thus the very language of the text reflects the distance in time and of civilization the world of the novel explores. The geographical setting happens to be the area of Kent where I grew up and the wit and inventiveness of Hoban’s language is evident the changes of place names – Monk’s Horton becomes Monkey’s Whore Town, the River Stour becomes the Sour, and Wye becomes How. A few years ago, when presenting her novel Pigtopia at a British Council event in Madrid, Kitty Fitzgerald told me how important Riddley Walker had been to her own writing. I am sure she is not alone. There may be better novels dealing with similar subject material but I doubt there is one as inventive and original.