Bewildering Stories

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The Reading Room

Thomas R.

Apocalypse Then

Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban
Davy by Edgar Pangborn

Apocalyptic Fiction perhaps is the most variable sub-genre in SF. Some of the worst SF ever produced is in the sub-genre. So much so it is a sub-genre that popularly is linked most to B movies or militia groups. Yet it has also produced some of the most literarily acceptable books in all SF. Works like A Canticle For Leibowitz for one. Nevertheless I usually read such books with reluctance, but this year I tried two anyway.

First one I read was Riddley Walker. Before that some background. As a kid I saw a movie called "The Mouse and His Child" I remember little of it except bits of the end song and the fact that it had been the most bizarre animated movie I had seen at that point. Based on a novel by Hoban, it's odd that would encourage me to read anything by him. However I became intrigued by the description of Riddley Walker, and curious if his style would seem as bizarre to me as an adult.

To my surprise that young experience proved more representative than I would have thought. The book had been intensely bizarre. The main thing that tends to be mentioned is its use of an odd dialect and spelling. People say "Parbly" for probably and spelling is somewhat simplified. Some of this might be a more extreme version of lower class England as the book tends to be very British despite the author being American by birth. However the dialect proved easy to adjust to, more strange was its strong focus on puppets and cannibalism. Including mixtures of the two, puppets who engage in cannibalism or threaten to. There are also the dogs who maybe turned into people during a nuclear power ceremony, the eyeless archbishop, and a few other things.

Yet I read the whole book because it hinted at an intriguing mystery. Unlike most apocalypse fiction it seemed to imply this Earth had perhaps entered an interstellar age before collapsing. It also hinted through myth and parable that a greater story would be uncovered. Yet to my disappointment that did not happen, or in least I think it did not. The book became so confusing that I eventually gave up figuring out what the heck was going on.

At the same time I can not entirely give this a negative evaluation. I did not like it at all, but it did have a certain charm. Indeed I think this is a book some would love. Just not me, or anyone with a tendency to prefer clear realistic fiction.

Davy comes next. This is a book I enjoyed more than I thought I did at first. Nevertheless the flaws that made me think it had been slightly disappointing were real for me. The book at times became preachy to the point of distraction. I also wish it had explained a few elements better and maybe even added more toward the end. Still it may be one of the most fun and funny books I had read in this sub-genre.

The book involves a group of free thinkers on a ship headed to rediscover the Old World. On the ship one of them, Davy, is busy writing his memoirs. Davy is not the smartest or most important person on the ship. Perhaps because of that the others provide footnotes to explain, clarify, improve, or blatantly contradict what he writes. These footnotes were a real highlight of the book, and through them the reader got the main impressions of his girlfriend Nikki. The book is made up of these memoirs and events with the ship. In theory these memoirs are to explain things to the denizens of the Old World.

In his memoirs he chronicles his life and adventures. Many of these adventures tended to be quite bawdy, but others had been more quiet even poignant. While the majority perhaps turned more toward being comical and was much funnier than a book about vicious theocracies killing mutants might be expected to be. Perhaps as surprising as that it felt more like a fractured version of 19th century America than the Medieval societies you usually get in such books. Indeed learning more about folk culture in the East Coast has given me a better impression of what the author had done with this book.

Yet the book did indeed have a dark undercurrent. There are wars, tragic deaths, and the overall climate of a planet living in a repressive Dark Age. Although optimistic about the future, none of the ship's inhabitants believe the Old World will be much better than the one they left. They expect mostly the same repressive religious types they left to be there too.

Which did lead to my main annoyance. The book had a tendency at times to go overboard with its "Evils of Religion" rants. As well as in other kinds of preaching at the reader. At times these became so over the top in its self righteousness I am tempted to think it had been meant as self parody. Fortunately it seemed to lessen this as the book wore on.

Still on the whole it was an enjoyable book. It even made me think on issues I had not thought on for awhile. I am therefore ultimately glad I read it.

In conclusion all those these books had similarities they could not have been more different. On reflecting back on them both one question however does fit for both and many others of this sub-genre. That is what happened to the rest of the planet in such books?

Copyright 2002 by Thomas R. and Bewildering Stories.