The world of Riddley Walker is often described as being set in a post-apocalyptic Iron Age, a temporal paradox that automatically raises the issue of the relationship between Past and Future. The Iron Age is a fairly nebulous periodization that comes apart with any effort to accord it a global scope. As with so many efforts to elaborate a coherent World History, it depends on where you’re looking. Iron technologies began to proliferate in Anatolia more than a thousand years before they became widespread in the North. If Herodotus’s Histories mark the Iron Age’s end in the Near East, it doesn’t terminate in Western Europe until the Roman conquest. In Scandinavia this watershed moment arrives only with the Viking Age 800 years later.
History isn’t what happened. It’s a narrative of certain events historians choose to include in the stories they decide to tell. Since the mid-20th century, traditional historiography has been challenged and revised. We now speak of differing histories such as “history from below,” an effort to account for historical development from the perspective of ordinary people. In spite of this transformative, pluralizing gesture that is intended to surpass Serious History– a record of Disasters, Inventions, Great Men, and Battles– we continue to wrestle with totalizing periodizations such as the Iron Age, Modernity, etc.
So in Hoban’s novel a new Iron Age, that dubious but still useful chunk of History marked off for analytical purposes, exists within a Future that functions as the Present of Riddley Walker’s world. This narrative device not only implies the cyclicity of History– History as a pattern of rhymes if not repetitions– it renders our Present a possible Past. But in this case the Past that is our own Present constitutes an apex of civilizational attainment rather than a cruder, more primitive prior stage.
One reason Riddley Walker is so interesting is that it troubles a common assumption that Modernity (and capitalism) has built a world in which the Future will be a slightly modified version of the Present. Our Future, Modernity (capitalism) tells us, will be just like now but with slicker technologies. Your cell phone may become an item of clothing. Education might take the form of sophisticated simulations intended to appeal to all the senses, experienced in private. In deference to the changing climate we may eat insects rather than cows or pigs. But the basic coordinates of the Present, the fundamental socio-economic structures such as investment for profit and private property, will remain the same. Hoban’s novel doesn’t offer us anything like a definitive break with that scenario but it does raise the issue, with Goodparley and Riddley in their differing ways, of the Past as an aspiration. In Goodparley’s case the dream is to regain its technological wonders, the catalyst for which lies with the reinvention of gunpowder. Riddley, on the other hand, yearns for “what we ben,” which I take to indicate not the Cold War world on the eve of its obliteration but the sum of humanity’s imperfect striving, its yearning for transcendence. The latter seems to me to be the effort to achieve an open-ended restoration: not a return to a dead society with its instrumentalized and ultimately destructive powers, but a hunger for the resumption of human (spiritual, creative) capacities.