Superfluous Matter
Books - Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

This book is awesome, but it's extremely hard to communicate why. Ostensibly it's a dystopian science fiction novel, although that is a fairly inadequate descriptor.

The book was written in 1980 and follows a set of characters living in the English countryside about 2000 years after an apocalyptic nuclear war. The technological level of humanity has only just returned to iron age status and many people are still hunter-gatherers. The story focuses on a young man, Riddley, as he comes of age and embarks on an adventure to rediscover a bit of lost knowledge from the past.

The culture of the society in which Riddley lives is an eclectic set of hybridized and bastardized myths sourced from generally misunderstood material from Christianity, antiquity, science, and half destroyed bits of leftover technology. This culture is distributed and maintained through puppet shows in the style of Punch and Judy (a British tradition I'd never heard of before, but which is a whole interesting topic in itself).

The text of the novel is written in a hypothetical version of English that has devolved from what we understand the language to be today. It's often described as almost Chaucerian, but that's a bit backwards. It's more accurate to say that the people in the novel find the pre-apocalypse version of English as difficult to read and understand as the average person today finds the works of Chaucer. Further complicating the language is the fact that the version in this book devolved from a version of heavily accented rural English that also made use of Cockney-style rhyming slang.

I've made it sound like this is a hard book to read, and it is, but it's also strangely absorbing. The characters survive despite terrible conditions, but they all seem to carry an unspoken sense of loss for knowledge that led humanity to such heights (and eventual destruction). For me the struggle to understand the text had a very neat parallel with the struggles of the characters as they attempt to reclaim that knowledge.

Here's a sample of the text (it sometimes helps to say the words out loud):

I dont think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self. You myt know the place and day and time of day when you ben beartht. You myt even know the place and day and time when you ben got. That dont mean nothing tho. You stil dont know where you begun.

This is definitely a book that warrants multiple readings. It was only at the end that I felt I had a pretty good handle on "Riddley-speak" and when I re-read it I think I'll catch a lot more. Despite the challenge I thoroughly enjoyed the story and I'm grateful for having discovered it in an article listing the favourite books of famous authors. "Riddley Walker" was the choice of Margaret Atwood, obviously.

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