Retrospeculative View, 1981

Some of the short fiction of 1981:

The Bone Flute, which won the Nebula Award for best short story. The author, Lisa Tuttle,refused the award because she objected to the bone_flute_covercampaigning of another author who was nominated for the award (she had attempted to refuse the nomination, but her refusal was not received in time).

John Varley’s Blue Champagne.

John Varley’s The Pusher, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1982)

Michael Bishop’s The Quickening, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

Poul Anderson’s The Saturn Game, which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella and the Hugo Award for Best Novella (1982)

William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic

Vernor Vinge’s True Names, which was awarded the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (2007). This is one of the innovative works that stimulated the evolution of the cyberpunk genre.

Roger Zelazny’s Unicorn Variation, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

 

Some of the movies of 1981:

Excalibur.jpgRaiders of the Lost Ark, the first in the franchise; the climactic scene brings a definite speculative element to the movie.

Excalibur, an adaption of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The movie had the texture of reality, but I found it rather dull…

Outland, set on Io, a moon of Jupiter. A space-western.

Time Bandits, a Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) film. The first of Gilliam’s trilogy of Imagination films. Time Bandits is a boy’s perspective, Brazil (1985) is a man’s perspective, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) is an old man’s perspective.

 

Some of the notable novels of 1981:

Philip K Dick’s VALIS, which I haven’t read, but it is usually listed among the best of his ouvre. VALIS is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the book apparently reflects PKD’s gnostic vision of an aspect of God. I read many PKD novels when I was younger, but really only enjoyed two (The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly); I’ve tried PKD books recently and, although I enjoy his ideas, I find the stories a bit too scattered and pulpy: it’s probably my loss, but I’ve given up on him.

C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, which won the Hugo Award (1982). I found this novel difficult going, but it is usually listed as one of her best (note: space operas are not my favorite sub-genre, so take my opinion with a grain of salt). If memory serves me, Downbelow Station starts well, but bogs-down in the middle third of the story before it gets back on track; the plot is well constructed, and the story ties in quite nicely with other Cherryh novels (Cyteen is prominent). Not my favourite by Cherryh, but it’s a good genre novel.

C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, the first of five novles in the Chanur series (published from 1981 – 1992) set in the same Alliance-Union foundation as Downbelow Station (see above). The expanse of space in the novel includes many civilizations that are regulated by the Compact, a trading agreement. The novel has four main characters, each from a different species; a human, a hani, a kif, and a mahe (plural: mahendo’sat). Cherryh does an admirable job of creating aliens with understandable motivations, although they seem a little too comprehensible and human (for the incomprehensible alien, try Stanislaw Lem): the hani are feline-like; the kif are rat-like, bipedal predators; and the mahendo’sat are a primate-like, politically motivated species. The Pride of Chanur is a hani spaceship. An enjoyable novel that builds tension through miscommunication and political manipulation.

The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe, which won the Nebula Award. This is the second offering in The Book of the New Sun, an exceptional work. I’ve written about this series in a previous post (see The Shadow of the Torturer, the Retrospeculative novel of 1980).

Little, Big (or, The Fairies Parliament) by John Crowley, which won the World Fantasy Award (1982). The novel relates the lives of the Drinkwaters and the hidden society of fairies. The setting is Edgewater, the Drinkwater’s peculiar, pastoral home, a house that apparently exists on the edge of multiple possibilities. The novel is presented in a surreal fashion, following four generations of the Drinkwaters, starting with the union of Smoky Barnable and Daily Alice Drinkwater at the beginning of the twentieth century, and concluding in a future, dystopian America. The fairies are seldom front-and-center, though the novel is saturated with their essence. There is a poignant atmosphere of restrained magic throughout the story.

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And my choice for Retrospeculative novel for 1981 is…

Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker, an apocalyptic tale that won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Within the novel, echoes of humanity’s former technological heights are common: Riddley doesn’t ‘make plans’, he programs his actions; Riddley WalkerPirntout (printout) means conclude; and don’t glitch my cool (my personal favourite) means don’t upset me. Riddley often mentions the Puter Leat (computer elite) who existed before the Bad Time. He also mentions a girt box of knowin (computer) that people hooked-up to via an iron hat, and they could programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas (past the sovereign galaxies). He talks about the many cools of the Addom (molecules of the atom, and an allusion to the biblical Adam), which they are the party cool of stone (particles of stone), he mentions the strong and the weak inner acting (the strong and weak forces interacting), and much more. Riddley bemoans what the human civilization once was and how far it has fallen: O what we ben!

The book is written in a manner that forces the reader to slow down in order to demystify the story, just as Riddley Walker must slowly puzzle things out for himself (by the way, the names of characters in the book are representations of their personalities: Riddley Walker, Fister Crunchman, Abel Goodparley, et cetera). The book was purposely written so that the reader is forced to sound-out some sections in order to comprehend the meaning; in Riddley’s world, information is shared orally, and Riddley’s writings form the possibility of a re-invented media.

Riddley’s world is slowly revealed through the mists of confusion: there are struggles between agricultural groups and hunter-gatherers, wild dog-packs terrorize the countryside, and the government distributes its politico-mythic messages using portable puppet theatres (politically revamped Punch and Judy shows). The plot is interesting, but much of the enjoyment comes from untangling the language; it immerses the reader, who must demystify as s/he travels through the pages.

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Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

Riddley WalkerRussell Hoban (1945 – 2011) made no secret of the fact that Riddley Walker was inspired by the painting of The Legend of Saint Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral. He began the novel the day he saw the painting, and completed it five and a half years later (he was able to maintain an income during that time by writing children’s books). He first wrote the story in ‘Standard’ English, but carefully worked out the Riddleyspeak that became the finished product and added layers of texture to the work. In Hoban’s Afterward  [SF Masterworks; Gollancz, 2012], he jokes: “I was a good speller before I wrote that book; I no longer am but can live with that.”

Riddley Walker is a tale of the fall of humanity, and echoes of humanity’s former technological heights are common; Riddley doesn’t ‘make plans’, he programs his actions; Pirntout (printout) means conclude; and glitch my cool (my personal favourite) means ‘upset me’. Riddley often mentions the Puter Leat (computer elite) who existed before the Bad Time. He also mentions a girt box of knowin (computer) that people hooked-up to via an iron hat, and they could programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas (past the sovereign galaxies). He talks about the many cools of the Addom (molecules of the atom, and an allusion to the biblical Adam), which they are the party cool of stone (particles of stone), he mentions the strong and the weak inner acting (the strong and weak forces interacting), and much more. Riddley bemoans what humanity once was, and how far they have fallen: O what we ben!

From the first sentence of the novel, the reader knows it will be a different experience:

On my namin day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundle Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.

The sentence above isn’t a particularly difficult section of the novel, but it certainly sets the mood. Riddley Walker can be a struggle to read; some people find that reading sections out loud helps, and it was designed that way, written in phonetic vernacular, with a British accent in mind (and, to be specific, an accent from the county of Kent). Punctuation is ignored, with the exception of periods. There is a limited vocabulary; so, as the reader progresses through the novel, it becomes easier to decipher the text, a first-person narrative by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, who is considered a literate man of the world although he is only twelve years old.

The book is written in a manner that forces the reader to slow down in order to demystify the story; just as Riddley Walker must slowly puzzle things out for himself (by the way, the names of characters in the book are representations of their personalities: Riddley Walker, Fister Crunchman, Abel Goodparley, etcetera). I assume that the book was purposely written so that the reader is forced to sound some sections aloud in order to comprehend the meaning; in Riddley’s world, information is shared orally, and Riddley’s writings form the possibility of a re-invented media.

The reader soon realizes that the events take place in England (‘Inland’) sometime after an apocalyptic, nuclear event (it is stated in the novel that over 2,400 years have passed since the apocalypse, but that seems too long a time for the slight degradation in language; after all, it is still recognizable. There are many misguided ‘facts’ within the novel and I suspect that less time has passed than what is stated). Riddley’s world is slowly revealed through the mists of confusion: there are struggles between agricultural groups and hunter-gatherers, wild dog-packs terrorize the countryside, and the government distributes its politico-mythic messages using portable puppet theatres (politically revamped Punch and Judy shows).

There are many intriguing descriptive passages within the book; Riddley stretches his language, and a few times he becomes frustrated with the limitations of words as tools of expression. The language is rife with distorted technical and political terminology, and allusions to religions abound, especially St. Eustace, referred to as Eusa in the novel, which can be interpreted as St. Eustace, USA (the first country to use a nuclear weapon on an enemy), us, use, and possibly you.

And there are many humorously reinvented place names; Dover is Do It Over, Herne Bay is Horny Boy, and Sandwich is Sams Itch. I’ve never been to Kent, but I’m sure that knowing the area would add to the reading enjoyment (Note: the edition I read didn’t include a map, but I found one on the web that overlaid Riddley’s world on a map of Kent as it is now).

The plot is interesting, but much of the enjoyment comes from untangling the language; it immerses the reader, who must ‘riddle’ things out as s/he ‘walks’ through the story.

There is a short glossary at the end of the book, but if you’d like some further help while reading, the sites listed below are useful (I found that reading a chapter and then perusing the annotations, while flipping through the pages of the chapter again, solidified the story). The SF Masterworks edition I read (Gollancz, 2012) has a nice Introduction by Adam Roberts, and two Afterwards; one by Russell Hoban, and the other by David Mitchell.

Highly recommended; but be forewarned, it is probably not a novel to take for a casual read on the beach this summer.

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A couple of resources (that also contain links to other resources):

Riddley Walker Annotations : with chapter-by-chapter notes, images, a map, and much more.

Russell Hoban’s official website

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