Literature: Riddley Walker

"O what we ben! And what we come to!"

A novel by Russell Hoban, set two (or perhaps three) millennia After the End.

Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, it deals with quasi-religious themes and ancient nuclear weapons. Unlike Canticle, it's about as pellucid as a brick, being written in what the author thinks English may evolve into 2000+ years down the road; understanding some of the passages can give even die-hard Finnegans Wake fans a run for their money. It's drenched with symbolism and double (or even triple) meaning, and is a favorite of those literature professors who have to teach a course in Science Fiction literature.

It was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1981.


This novel contains examples of:

  • After the End: It's a bit unclear exactly what happened, since Riddley's society doesn't understand the technology and different myths give slightly conflicting stories, but nuclear energy was certainly involved.
  • All First Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Mostly, though unusually for this trope nearly no effort is made to acquaint the reader with things Riddley takes for granted. Readers can see, for instance, that Riddley never writes out numbers even when they're part of a word ("once" is always rendered "1ce"); we can infer, given that numbers and their power figure heavily in the story of humanity's downfall, that this is probably some kind of taboo; but, since Riddley has no reason to question or explain it, we never find out why.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Downplayed—some remnants of government do exists as the Mincery; the Pry Mincer considers himself the head of state; and the Mincery is shown to be aggressively supporting farmers at the expense of hunter-gatherers.
  • The Beforetimes: Played with. Since they were well over two thousand years ago and civilisation is roughly at an Iron Age level, Riddley's people don't understand pre-Bad Time technology and treat it as half-allegory, half-alchemy.
  • Blind Seer: Lissener
  • Coming-of-Age Story: The book starts with Riddley's twelfth name day, which is the age of majority in his society.
  • Eternal English: Emphatically averted in favour of Language Drift.
  • Eternal Recurrence: A major theme, as humanity is in its second Iron Age and poised for its second discovery of gunpowder.
  • Eyeless Face: Lissener
  • Funetik Aksent: The form of English used in the book is actually based upon phonetic interpretations of the Kentish accent.
  • Future Primitive: Riddley's people.
  • Ghost City: The dead towns, especially Cambry.
  • Grand Theft Prototype: Lissener's solution to the problem of humanity's rediscovery of gunpowder is to steal and dispose of the Salt 4 (sulfur) that's just made its way to Inland. Riddley realizes this won't work.
  • Hellhound: A mixture of this and Post-Apocalyptic Dog.
  • Hit So Hard the Calendar Felt It: Dates are reckoned in years O.C., which means "Our Count." (It's the 24th century O.C.)
  • Lost Common Knowledge: Everywhere, but especially the lost technology of gunpowder.
  • Language Drift: A core part of the book, which is very much about communication and how language shapes culture (and vice versa).
  • Lost Technology: All of it, but the rediscovery of gunpowder is what drives the main plot.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: Situational cannibalism in the immediate post-nuclear era is key to one of Riddley's people's myths, and the Punch and Judy story late in the book has... rather more cannibalism than is common in the present.
  • Nu Spelling: The entire book.
  • Please Select New City Name: All of future Kent, as recorded in the children's rhyme "Fools Circel 9wys". "Canterbury" has become "Cambry"; "Faversham", "Father's Ham"; "Dover", "Do It Over"; and so forth. Interestingly, the roads seem to have kept their names.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Dog: Dogs have become humanity's enemies since the Bad Time. Sometimes a dog or dog pack will taking a liking to someone, but this state of being "dog frendy" is not considered an endorsement. Riddley is therefore understandably unsettled when it happens to him.
  • Punch and Judy: Central to the book. The 'Eusa Show', which tells the myth of how modern society was destroyed, heavily borrows upon Punch and Judy in its execution, for example the call and response between performer and audience; the book's plot is kicked into motion when Riddley finds an ancient Punch puppet; and the book ends with Riddley and company taking their new/old Punch and "Pooty" (Judy) show on the road.
  • Ragnarok-Proofing: Plenty of old tech is able to be scavenged and re-forged, and at one point in the novel Riddley encounters a gigantic machine that is apparently untouched.
  • Scavenger World: "Inland" (England) is at about an Iron Age level of civilisation, but people seem to scavenge their iron rather than smelt it from ore. They do have the key Iron Age technology of charcoal, though.
  • Shout-Out: The Book of Job is hugely important to this novel, but isn't mentioned by name.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The pre-apocalypse world.