The American novelist Russell Hoban died aged 86 in late 2011. I was sad about this because when someone passes it’s a sad thing – for those they leave behind, and for the absence where there had for so long been presence.
My sadness was also down to selfish reasons: Hoban was, by a good measure, my favourite novelist. And of all his novels, my favourite is (perhaps predictably) Riddley Walker.
Riddley Walker takes place around 10,000 years after (presumably) a nuclear war that took place sometime around 1997. Some low-tech stuff (hoists, wheels, huts) have emerged since, but the pre- 1997 world exists only as a kind of legend, only fractionally understood. The book’s narrator is a 12 year old kid named Riddley Walker. One of the central themes of the story is technology. The language isn’t standard English, since it’s set in the far future. Here’s Riddley Walker recounting (via Lorna Elswint) a story about the far past of the mid- 1990s:
Counting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fractiont out the Power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting clevverness is what it wer.
When they had all them things and marvelsome they cudnt sleap really they dint have no res.
They had machines that ate numbers up. They had the numbers of the rainbow. They had boats in the air, and pictures on the wind. Boats in the air doesn’t even mean spaceships, does it? It means aeroplanes. And pictures on the wind is a beautiful phrase – a smoke signal, except better: broadcast television. But they lost the ‘clevverness’ and via the Manhattan Project, the splitting of the atom, blew themselves up.
Empires rise, empires fall. Whether this is entropy or not is not for me to guess. Cytology tells us that each time a cell divides, its protective cap – the telomere – is lessened with each new division. Humans, then, are programmed to die – and this isn’t entropic. It’s just the way of us.
The Boards of Canada album Tomorrow’s Harvest asks a similar set of questions – what is civilisation? And where will it go? Before and after science. Tomorrow never knows. Most future-fiction is, of course, a projection of the present, hence the flared trousers (very non Punk Rock, ha!) in series such as Space 1999. Russell Hoban and Boards of Canada reach far further out – into an uncomfortable place that isn’t dystopic: it’s beyond even the wildest shores.
Solution 214-239, The Book of Japans by the Scottish writer (& musician, artist) Momus does the one thing that no future telling book ever did before. Instead of presenting a vision of the future, it presents a multiple telling of it by multiple insane narrators. In the aggregate lies not the truth, only our chance to find our own truth. Stuff like Dos Passos’ USA trilogy and Whole Earth Catalog were wise enough to acknowledge the cacophony of their times. But Momus is the only writer whose far future is as schizophrenic (in the popular sense) as today.