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It’s the Future, Jim, But Not as We Know It

By Charlotte Young.

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Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban, Jonathan Cape 1980

This year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker. Riddley Walker is The Greatest Book I Have Ever Read, which means that, in solipsistic terms, it is also The Greatest Book Ever Written. I haven’t felt this way about a book since Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Seriously.

Riddley Walker is 214 pages long. It is incredibly complex and layered, rich in symbolism. It is essentially a work of science-fiction, set in a post-post-nuclear Kent, England, approximately 2000-2500 years in the future (the characters themselves are unsure and can only give a rough estimate). It is written in a kind of medieval Chaucerian post-apocalyptic patois, reminiscent of the abbreviated text/web language found in ever-increasing usage today:

‘The rain hevvit on by the end of the day it wer coming down in buckits plus it blowt up a hevvy wind out of the Norf and Eas you cud perwel lean on it.’

This is a complex novel and I do not wish to pick it apart as many journalists, writers, teachers have so clumsily done in the past. However, it is difficult to discuss it without explaining the backdrop in some detail, so, if you do not want to see the results, please look away now.

Riddley Walker is narrated by its eponymous hero as he describes his accidental involvement in the state’s ceaseless attempts to understand the causes of ‘the 1 Big 1’ (nuclear fusion) and ‘the Master Chaynjis’ (the subsequent nuclear holocaust) through the confused quasi-religious belief system that now exists. Based on myth and storytelling of ‘time back way back,’ this credence jumbles the legend of ‘Eusa’ (Saint Eustace) with a warped version of Punch and Judy and the search for the advanced knowledge of science in the past (‘the chemistery and the fizzics of it…the clevverness’) which has been lost, or rather blown out of existence, alongside practically everything else that we would consider progressive today – machinery, electricity, basic societal infrastructure – as a result of the 1 Big 1. Set in the future, mankind has regressed, and their present is a living anachronism.

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What is of particular interest is the implication by Hoban that, should we indeed blithely blast ourselves into nuclear oblivion, which, let’s face it, seems increasingly likely (however, the UK’s nuclear missile defense system, Trident, sounds so much like a brand of striped toothpaste I’m inclined to believe that, should come it come to radioactive fall-out, we can, at least, take comfort in that the smoldering remains will smell minty fresh), left with almost nothing of thousands of years building civilizations, humankind will ultimately turn to a belief structure, namely a religious one, around which they can build their lives and create some kind of purposeful meaning therein.

In The God Delusion et al Richard Dawkins claims that humans do not need a God-figure to attain such fulfillment and that the belief or assumption that we do is a false one, invented by religion, essentially creating a need and supplying a product to satisfy it in the same way that the huge international retailers do today.

I’m not a religious person. I do not believe God. For quite a long time, I whole-heartedly believed in Manic Street Preachers. But, alas, bassist Nicky Wire‘s announcement last week that he is writing an episode of Doctor Who has broken my pretentious, angst-ridden little heart into a million apoplectic pieces and unless Dylan Thomas versus The Cybermen is crammed full of oblique references to Marxism and the decline of moral principles in Western politics, quite frankly, we’re through.

But, I digress. I went to a Church of England school until aged 11 and church until about 14. Then something happened; apostasy via idols in music and football – before the Manics, it was Take That; before Take That, John Barnes – and the airing of Lee & Herring‘s This Morning With Richard Not Judy or TMWRNJ. For those unfamiliar the show, TMWRNJ was a satire on then-popular weekday chat show programme, This Morning with Richard and Judy, but with the added barb of being wittingly broadcast on Sunday mornings, at about the same time you would normally be in church. In the main it consisted of sketches and mock chat-show interviews. However, the show also had two regular segments that overtly parodied the religions services happening concurrently throughout the country; ‘Pause for Thought for the Day,’ where comedian Kevin Eldon, playing ‘The Unusual Priest,’ imparted a ridiculous mock Radio 4-esque moral to the viewers; and ‘Sunday Heroes’. This was a sketch wherein Jesus would receive a question regarding a Christian tenet. Jesus would reply by making an ambiguous comment i.e. ‘Consider the Lily’. This reply was then questioned, usually by ‘Matthew,’ to which Jesus would then retort with an enigmatic ‘Ahhhh,’ causing the disciple to become increasingly frustrated by his teacher’s prevarications. The programme inevitably received a high volume of complaints.

Atheism – and, concomitantly, evidence-based Science – is unsurprisingly currently finding some of its strongest advocates and supporters on the comedy scene. Robin Ince’s alternative Christmas comedy variety show Nine Lesson and Carols for Godless People – “If the Royal Variety Show was put in a matter transportation machine with the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, this is what you’d get” – is met with an ever growing audience (congregation?) each year, who get to see turns from figures like Dawkins, Professor Brian Cox and Simon Singh, in amongst stand up and musical comic acts.

Everybody, including Dawkins, although I imagine he would beg to differ, practice or have practiced an idolatry of some kind. We’ve all at least had a hero, a personality we admire for whatever reason, whether it be their breakthrough research into a cure for cancer or their ability to grow the largest marrow in Wiltshire. And where would the evidenced-based atheist be without the admiration of greater beings, entities far more untouchable than he? Where would his drive come from?

James Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything is a study of our complacent reliance on technology and the ways in which we perceive it to be saving us precious time. Each chapter focuses on a single device, such as the wristwatch or the elevator, and Gleick suggests this insatiable desire for speed is bordering on a Pavlovian response. Now that we have the machines and gadgets created to make life ‘easier,’ we want them sleeker, smaller, more powerful, all doing what they did in previous incarnations but, faster and more efficiently, ad infinitum, until they are rendered obsolete, either through further technological advancements or boredom.

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Arthur C. Clarke once noted that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The characters in Riddley Walker constantly repeat to each other the story of ‘Eusa’. Eusa is a sort of Lucifer figure, both saint (good intentions) and sinner (impatient and greed lead him to destruction), based on the legend of Saint Eustace. In The Story of Eusa he goes in search of the ‘Littl Shyning Man’ a strange compound character of Jesus Christ and the action of the splitting of the atom, who represents a lost ideal of completeness; a seamless marriage of religion and science into one article of faith. Eusa finds the Littl Shyning Man and asks him to give him the numbers, the key to the 1 Big 1. The Littl Shyning Man refuses and Eusa physically rips him in two, causing a nuclear explosion.

It is difficult not to compare this for the real and present ongoing search at CERN for the Higgs Bosun aka the ‘God particle’ that may or may not exist, but which, if discovered, is expected to explain the origin of mass – and therefore life – in the Universe. Further, the characters, both in the novel and in the Eusa sub-story, wax lyrical about the idealised wonder of the futuristic past, of ‘boats in the air and picters on the wind.’

Interest in science has seen a huge increase over the last decade, and can be attributed partly to the Internet – what can’t – and our exponential reliance on an ever-improving digital, wireless, 3D technology. Discovering just how our gadgetry works and how it could be improved in the future is exciting. So, are our science heroes the modern day spiritual leaders that Riddley and his contemporaries might find respite in? We take comfort not from the promise of an afterlife, but of that of a clear, provable truth, definite and unchanging. Which, from what I remember from Sunday School, are some of the many ineffable qualities of the Man Upstairs.

With iPhones, instant messaging, the Internet, RSS feeds, your choice of televised sport in three dimensions, the debunking of ‘bad science’ and non-evidence based everything, we don’t need to go to Church for answers because we know we will get a more balanced, varied and factually accurate response from Wikipedia or Twitter.

So remember how lucky you are that, in your lifetime, with Apple currently churning out new products faster than a McDonald’s drive-thru, you probably won’t need God at all. And for His sake, read this book. Found God? If no one claims him in thirty days, he’s yours!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlotte Young is an artist, writer and comedian. She has recently co-written a book with acclaimed artist and musician Billy Childish, which is published by the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop. In 2008 she received the Owen Rowley Award for Art (£600) but did not invest this money wisely and is now receiving benefits.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 5th, 2010.