Russell 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.
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