Future Hell: Nuclear Fiction in Pursuit of History

By Trevor J. Doherty
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 2/6 |

IV. Hoban’s Riddley Walker

Like Miller before him, Hoban in Riddley Walker has imagined our civilization reduced to its second infancy following worldwide nuclear conflict. It was the recipient of the Nebula Award in 1981 for being an outstanding work of imagination. On the island of England, approximately two and half millennia in the future; small semi-nomadic bands of people and loosely associated families travel among muddy villages fenced in from wild animals that roam the land. Riddley’s character is associated with packs of wolves that patrol the wilderness, not only making him an outcast and an adventurer who discovers a powerful secret (Spoiler: The recipe for gunpowder), but it is the wolves who give him safe harbor and aid him in his quest to defeat the tyrannical antagonists of Goodparley and Orfing; characters who exploit others and Riddley’s knowledge of gunpowder for their own personal gain.

In many ways, this is probably what Einstein had in mind, the technology of sticks, stones and rudimentary alchemy being the articles of conflict. What is unique about Hoban’s style of writing is self evident when held in the eye,11 as he was an author of children’s literature for many years before imagining Riddley Walker in Canterbury Cathedral in 1974. The inhabitants of the villages are forcibly employed by the local governing body known as The Ram to excavate and crudely study the smashed machinery left over from our contemporary civilization. The Ram is able to govern the people through the discourse of the puppet show, a mimetic device that authorizes the cultural memory, entertains children, and maintains a hegemonic discourse of power over the enslaved masses from which Riddley Walker, the title character and supposed author of the book, arises. Goodparley and Orfing are government puppeteers who perform for quarter and tribute in the medieval villages. The content of the government authorized puppet show is the Eusa play, a collection of theatrical skits that tell the history of Riddley’s world while harboring encoded recipes for advanced weaponry. The character of Lissener is found by Riddley in one of The Ram’s prisons, as the young blind boy is part of a subversive collective working to rediscover the technology of a passed civilization. Riddley inherited his literacy from his father who serves as a record keeper and interpreter of the Eusa plays, analogous to the monks who work tirelessly at preserving and translating salvaged texts.

In the wake of his father’s death while excavating a mangled chunk of machinery, Riddley must assume the responsibility of cultural interpreter12 not only to the constituents of his village, but also to us, the outside readers and champions of his cause. As in Canticle, these excavators of familiar twentieth century ruins have mythologized our civilization, but do not have any idea what the unifying principle is that enables and enlivens the symbols and artifacts they discover. Riddley discovers that in order to preserve life, he must keep his knowledge a secret while at the same time surviving in a wilderness full of ferocious beasts and cunning people. Inventing an alternate puppet show with some puppets he found while excavating the familiar artifacts of the past, Riddley can preserve the secrets he has uncovered and promote peace and unity through his own theatre. His own puppet show, utilizing the characters of Punch and Judy13, is an attempt to create an antithetical social discourse that rejects the content and message of the Eusa play.

V. Miller and Hoban Compared

Both key sets of players, The Monks of Leibowitz and Riddley Walker, realize in their historical adventures that making choices is not only a matter of every day living, but that the concepts of soul and imagination have the power to influence history in a positive fashion. These characters have a unique sense of the future, and the ideological battles they fight represent their respective hopes for the fate of humankind.

The clashing of these values and the choices that determine the validity of each ideology is the propellant of history and the motivator of these great novelistic plots. The coming together of people to exchange ideas and create a community of discourse is a crucial point of interest for both authors, because rationally, how could a cultural dialectic occur if no people were present to form competitive ideological factions? Virtually all of the important debates about truth and the nature of rationality in Canticle are held within the walls of a monastery. Riddley makes his most startling revelations in the charred ruins of Canterbury Cathedral. Both authors make it clear that without people coming together to argue, debate, or even exchange ideas, no progress whatsoever would be made in these newly developed patches of civilization. The lonely abbey becomes a way station for the exchange of ideas and cultural inquiry. An ancient highway (Route 66?) running through the former desert of Utah is reestablished as a ferociously busy thoroughfare by the conclusion of the novel. These locations of cultural conflict and synthesis tease out the forces that are under scrutiny by the authors. Miller does not seem completely at ease with the concept of the rational mind, identifying it as a key player in the evolution of history.

 In the following exchange between Brother Francis and one of his detractors, Brother Jeris, a fellow monk at the abbey who serves as a skeptical nuisance to the faithful Francis, Miller is creating a living dialectic, two competing ideologies personified in each monk. As Francis is illuminating the pre-flame deluge blueprint that he had discovered earlier in “Fiat Homo,” Brother Jeris seems to take genuine satisfaction in proving to Francis that although the blueprint may be aesthetically pleasing, he really has no idea what the symbols could possibly mean. This skepticism embodied by Brother Jeris is also the chief quality of Thon Taddeo, who represents in the second book, “Fiat Lux,” the scientific mind in its greatest moments of discovery and revelation. Dominic Manganello goes into great detail on how possessing a skeptical rationality is the defining quality of characters like Thon Taddeo, but overlooks this same quality in characters like Brother Jeris.

The dialogue between Francis and Jeris is fraught with the irony that what they are unknowingly discussing is the fastest path to human-made global annihilation, but they must first go through the motions of using dialogue and debate to develop a cultural inquiry that will enable that possible future:

Jeris was becoming pretentious in his sarcasm, Francis thought, and decided to meet it with a soft answer. “Well, observe this column of figures, and its heading: ‘Electronic Parts Numbers.’ There was once, an art or science, called Electronics, which might belong to both Art and Science.

“Uh huh! Thus settling ‘genus’ and ‘species.’ Now as to the ‘difference,’ if I may pursue the line. What was the subject matter of electronics?”

“That too is written,” said Francis, who had searched the Memorabilia from high to low in an attempt to find clues which might make the blueprint slightly more comprehensible, but to very small avail. “The Subject matter of Electronics was the electron,” he explained.

“So it is written, indeed. I am impressed. I know so little of these things. What, pray, was the ‘electron’?”

“Well, there is one fragmentary source which alludes to it as a “Negative Twist of Nothingness.’”

“What! How did they negate nothingness? Wouldn’t that make it a somethingness?”

“Perhaps the negation applies to the ‘twist.’”

“Ah! Then we would have an “Untwisted Nothing,” eh?

Have you discovered how to untwist nothingness?”

“Not yet,” Francis admitted.

“Well keep at it Brother! How clever they must have been, those ancients, to know how to untwist nothing. Keep at it, and you may learn how. Then we’d have the ‘electron’ in our midst, wouldn’t we? Whatever would we do with it? Put it on the altar in the chapel? (Miller 77-78).

Ironically, when the arc lamp is re-invented, Brother Jeris’ joking prediction comes true, as the illuminating apparatus replaces a crucifix on the wall of the abbey. This is a dialogue of an empirical nature, both parties realizing the limits of their knowledge in regard to the symbols, but nonetheless striving to make sense of the patterns and designs featured on the tattered document. The methodology of Hegel fills in the gaps if you consider that the argument between the two monks, Francis and Jeris, is part of a much longer dialogue that not only spans the length of the book, but also the entire history of this future civilization. Miller is deft at weaving petty skepticism into synthesis with humanity’s cultural capacity for competitive behavior, which for the author culminates in the nuclear arms race, the cold war, and the final war. In Hegelian terms, the process of contrapuntal conjecture that the monks participate in is not featured to simply promote the comedic irony of accidental discoveries. Rather, for both Miller and his philosophical predecessor Hegel, the most subversive and destructive quality of humanity is that of the innate scientific mind which manifests itself in the character of Jeris. The ability to name things accurately is lampooned, as this is the first step by which a concept can enter a cultural discourse. Miller comments in his essay “Logos, Thanatos, Agape” that “This is the hereditary eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; learning how to talk and to think in syllogisms…” (Miller, Beyond Armageddon 14)

Continuity of dialectic structures has a major impact on the philosophy of historical causality for Miller, Hegel, and as well as for Hoban. Miller’s acidic sense of comedy causes these two monks to inadvertently discuss exactly what the atomic bomb is capable of, literally the “untwisting” of matter. Its analogue can be found in Hoban’s Eusa story, wherein the character of Eusa was the mythologized physicist who had enabled nuclear weaponry through scientific and linguistic finesse. In Riddleyspeak, an atom is called “Addom,” and the symbol of the “little Shynin man” represents the mass of uranium that can be pulled apart through atomic fission to produce a catastrophic explosion. The little shining man is embodied as the figure of the shattered crucifix. The play on words indicates that even the staid symbols of the Judeo-Christian culture have been modified to suit the linguistic needs of the future. The image of the crucifix, pulled to pieces, is the metaphor through which Riddley can grasp our concept of atomic fission. The pulling apart of the shining man runs parallel to the “untwisting” of matter described by Brother Jeris. The cyclical nature of Hoban’s text implies that once the ‘Little Shynin Man’ is reassembled, the only logical conclusion will be to disassemble him once again, and Riddley is the character and representative power in society that would seek to avoid the reigniting of this particular fate.

“Eusas off then and the Little Shynin Man comes down hes in 2 peaces. He says, “Onlyes way Iwl get to put to gether is when people pul to gether.’ (Hoban 58)

The image of the atom and the soul is deftly woven by Hoban in this passage. In both Canticle and Riddley Walker, the development of the bomb is directly tied to conflagrations of pride, which is the greatest sin in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, both of which generate the respective signifiers of Satan and St. Eustace. Like Riddley Walker, Brother Francis is decoding a text that is reliant upon the reader having a basic knowledge of science and engineering; only both sets of characters live in an age where the discovery of such things is far off in the future. It is this sort of playful exchange between the monks that represents the innate curiosity about the nature of matter and the ungovernable forces of the universe. What is important to note is the structure by which Miller has chosen to construct the scene; he uses actual dialogue to show how these monks are developing a system to rediscover the means their own destruction. The ignorance of their subject matter allows them to continue developing the methods of skeptical discourse without knowing they are programming the culture of the future to have a vested interest in the nature and function of matter.

For the inhabitants of Riddley’s world, a symposium14 is the means by which people come together to unravel the nature of matter for malicious purposes. In this passage, Riddley is asking the character of Lissener how he plans to rediscover the methods of physics and chemistry, the pulling together of data becoming the metaphor for scientific discourse:

I said, “ ‘How dyou do that kind of gathering what youre going to do? Do you all set down and pul datter or dyou jus think to gether or what?

He said, “We do some poasyum.” (Hoban 107)

Both authors celebrate the gathering of people to debate and share information, but are acutely aware that such arenas can foster competition among ideological bodies of people, and when the subject of inquiry is weaponry and the suppression of others, the stakes go far beyond these dens of destruction. Perhaps that is why theatres, courts, libraries and symposiums ironically signify the physical locations of dialectic synthesis in the novels. The dialectic is the most effective and transparent means by which one can organize history into a rational evolution of cultural progress. The revelations of scientific and cerebral truths through a process of communal discourse is the soul of cultural progress and the Hegelian dialectic, but to Riddley Walker and The Monks of Leibowitz, realizing that to endure as a species, humility must triumph over pride, and diversions to this struggle can be found in the arts and humanitarian sciences.

Riddley Walker is a young man who is telling this tale in his own unique tongue, relating to the reader the choices he must make when he realizes that technology, when harnessed by the wicked, can easily aid in the suppression of humanity by those in positions of power. Also, through his development of a primitive literacy, “Riddleyspeak,” he is able to decode the Eusa play, and discover the objects of power sought for by Lissener, Goodparley, and Orfing. The Eusa play is derived from the pre-atomic war era, and is the substantive oral tradition maintained in this community through the aforementioned puppet shows. Through careful extrapolation, Riddley unlocks the formula for gunpowder from these encoded historical artifacts, the same way Thon Taddeo stands off the shoulders of ancient giants to further his career. The motivator of the antagonistic characters is the lust for the power attained through the development of physics and chemistry, which can enable devices and weapons that can perpetuate the systems of power already in place. Even though Riddley is the one who is able to interpret the Eusa play, he is not interested in using his knowledge for political purposes. The characters of Goodparley and Orfing in Riddley Walker, who embody this lust for power through superior science, are the ideological counterparts to Thon Taddeo.

Thon Taddeo, while making a humanist case for the rediscovery of mechanical society, cannot see the full implications of reestablishing society on a similar track to our own. In his discourse with the monks in the era of “Fiat Lux,” he makes it clear that the society and ambitions he represents has already made considerable headway into the natural sciences and other observable physical properties of matter, as the unseen character of Esser Shon has already pioneered the “refrangible properties of light.” The turgid scholar soon discovers that without the monks, his discoveries are already old news.(Miller Canticle 212). The monks at the Abbey of Leibowitz, by preserving literacy and rational thought, are kindling a force that will eventually enable minds to build grand engines of death. David Seed holds that Miller’s uses of light and dark imagery represent the thematic crux of Canticle, and as the title of part two, “Fiat Lux,” lends weight to Seeds argument.I would venture to say that technology and the cultural development of science is even more central to the novel’s design and to post-nuclear fiction at large. The relationship between technology and political power not only ties Canticle and Riddley Walker together thematically; it also leads to the pointed criticism of rationality itself.

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