Friday Reads: Riddley Walker

In the next couple of weeks Gollancz will publish, in the SF Masterworks series, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Although I’ve had little to do with the process, my small involvement will count as one of the highlights of my publishing career. Because, quite simply, I believe that Riddley Walker  is one of the most powerful, affecting, clever and remarkable books ever published. It isn’t out of print, or languishing forgotten, but it’s a hugely important addition to the Masterworks series. I think it’s reductive to call it SF, to be honest, as the book is so much more, but it holds much for the SF fan and if our edition can reach some who wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, that’s fine by me.

Riddley Walker is set in an England of the future, after a nuclear catastrophe, and tells the story of the eponymous Riddley, a 12 year old boy who loses his father and goes on a remarkable journey across the ruined landscape. But, in a sense, neither the plot nor the characters are the reason I believe you should read this book (although Riddley is one of the most rounded, well-developed characters in literature, and you will fall in love with him). No, what I want to talk about is the language. Hoban was never less than a remarkable prose stylist, but here, in his greatest work, he reached a new level. As the civilisation of England has crumbled and devolved, so too has its language. The whole book is told in Riddley’s words, and, well, best to let the man himself speak. This is the opening line of the book:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’

Pity the proofreader.

This remarkable voice is held throughout the book, and there’s no doubt that it can be hard work. This is not a book you can read a few pages of and then put aside. But devote an afternoon to it, don’t look at anything else, and you will find that the rhythm and the sense of the language will take hold of you. I re-read every couple of years, and I always find it hard to parse sense from normal English as I rise, blinking, from the end. Riddley Walker takes hold of you, grabs your brain and rewires it until you’re there alongside Riddley as he investigates the mystery of the ‘Littl Shynin Man the Addom’, and tries to find his place in a cruel and difficult world.

I could go on and on about this book – the reworking of myth, science and history into a new religion in this new world, the perfect and clever trick of using the familiar story of Punch & Judy as a new metaphor and tool of control, the highs and lows you will feel alongside poor Riddley – but, as I said, to me they’re all adjuncts to the most impressive piece of sustained writing I’ve ever read. Our edition comes with a new introduction from Adam Roberts and a reprinted appreciation from David Mitchell (the novelist, not the comedian), and I think is a thing of beauty, and I’d like you to order it. But I urge you to read this book in any format you can find, set aside some time, and delve in.