"Dyou mean to tel me them befor us by the time they done 1997 years they had boats in the air and all them things and here we are weve done 2347 years and mor and stil slogging in the mud?"
– From Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
If the line above strikes you as being full of typos, rest assured, it's meant to be like that. Riddley Walker has its own dialect, a crude yet eloquent blend of Kent accent, Chaucerian English, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and Burgess's Nadsat language from A Clockwork Orange.
Post-apocalyptic books, films and TV shows are always topical, tapping into our fears of global warming, terrorism, nuclear weapons and various natural disasters. Set some two thousand years in the future after an unspecified event (presumably nuclear) has destroyed much of civilisation as we know it, the 'Inland' (England) of Riddley Walker, the eponymous twelve-year-old hero of the novel, is a savage, dangerous and desolate place, thrust back to an Iron Age existence where all technological and scientific knowledge has been lost, yet the people have a vague knowledge of man's once power (as the above quote illustrates). Dogs have become human's enemy, and travelling alone is not advised. It is a primitive world of superstition and fear, largely based on ignorance.
The characters in the book try and make sense of the few surviving cultural relics they've dug up by ascribing (usually false and misleading) cultural or mythical meaning to them. The book is laden with symbolic and geographical references (roads are still referred to by their motorway numbers). The Legend of Saint Eustace becomes a thread running throughout the book, with the 'Eusa' puppet shows serving as explaining their central creation myth: that man's greediness and thirst for knowledge caused civilisation's downfall.
I've always found Punch & Judy shows slightly sinister. Puppets are a bit creepy in themselves, and added with the random, repetitive violence… But mainly it's after reading Riddley Walker that I look at Punch & Judy shows in a new light. Riddley finds a puppet whilst digging at work and the Punch & Judy show becomes another creation myth with the devil as the destroyer of humanity. Riddley – being one of the few characters able to read – recognises that the quest for man's past glories will eventually result in destruction.
One of my all-time favourite books, Riddley Walker (first published in 1980) is a masterpiece; one of those novels which seemed to come from nowhere – previously Hoban had written children's books (though a contemporary review of one of his children's books, The Mouse and his Child (1967), perhaps hints at things to come, where Isabel Quigly in the Spectator writes of it: 'coincidence seems like destiny') and since Riddley Walker Hoban's books have been quirky, fun and light – flippant comedies, perhaps even lazy, like Ballard's later books – but Riddley Walker is so fully-realised and absorbing that it takes you into another world. Perhaps that's why it's called science fiction but that's doing it an injustice.
• Fans of the book include writers David Mitchell and Will Self, whose Book of Dave also employs an invented language.
• There are far better articles than this about Riddley Walker. I consulted this, this and this (which is almost as heavy going as the book itself).