Riddley Walker finds an iron-age civilisation rebuilding a world ravaged by nuclear war, with the titular hero scavenging technology from a forgotten time. Confused interpretations of the past give the new world its superstitions, religion and a great threat in the form of an ancient weapon. Outcast from his community, Riddley must single-handedly take on those that would bring back the destruction of the apocalypse.
Beyond its inimitable dystopian set up, what makes the novel so revered is that the reader is completely immersed in the world Hoban created. So what are the elements that make it a classic?
1) The World of Riddley Walker
This pre-historic future is a fascinating combination of primitive culture developed from odd, almost random, traces of our world. The centuries old feeling – with bizarre folklore evolved, for example, from the image of a stained glass window – is authenticity down pat.
2) Restrained Exposition
Presented through the somewhat ignorant narrator and his encounters, the vast background to this world is never simply laid out in a clear or systematic way. It is a world of allusions, with references to puppet shows, computers and nuclear weapons, with no clear through line between this society’s interpretations and the past. You can’t help but experience the world the same way that Riddley does, confusion and all.
3) The Language of Riddley Walker
Hoban effectively created a new language, imagining the evolution of a broken society’s speech. The book requires more commitment than most, but by forcing you to slow down and sound out words it will actually have you thinking like Riddley’s people. This goes beyond voicing a character, it creates a unique atmosphere.
4) A Hero We Want to Spend Time With
A 12 year old on the cusp of manhood, Riddley is an eminently curious and affable young man. His innocence, goodness and humour are necessary antidotes to the savagery of his world, making his story entertaining rather than simply terrifying (or baffling). He even offers a sense of blunt philosophy – with insights ranging from “What ever eats mus shit.” to “you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it”.
In short, he is the perfect guide to accompany through this adventure.
5) The Ultimate Stakes
In true dystopian form, Riddley’s journey does not just take him out into the world, it takes him up against something that threatens everyone. This story of adventure and discovery is also one with the greatest dangers – and its themes of power, knowledge, corruption and religion are as relevant now as ever.
The result is not just a beautifully detailed world, but an exciting, timeless story. Riddley Walker feels as likely ten thousand years in the past as ten thousand years in the future. It’s a sometimes disorientating but always fascinating ride.
BIO: Phil Williams is a freelance writer and the self-published author of two novels and a couple of English grammar guides. When he’s not embroiled in sci-fi and contemporary fantasy, he writes for businesses and tutors advanced English language and writing. You can find him on his author website, writing about the English language or on Twitter @fantasticphil.
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