Potash Hill

Clear Writing

Dystopian Language
By Sophie Gorjance ’16

Part of the beauty of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction lies in the fact that after the authors have destroyed whatever world originally existed in their stories, they are able to rebuild that world in whatever shape they like. One aspect of writing an apocalypse that authors frequently overlook is that of language.

Dystopian books that discuss the ways their environment or government has shaped the language, like 1984, The Dispossessed, and The Time Machine, are often praised and become classics. It takes a rare story to actually involve that new language and rise to an equivalent level of success, as was the case with A Clockwork Orange. It seems that Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel published in 1980, got too close to the invisible line at which the effort required is more than most readers are willing to expend. Yet those who do cross that line find a rich, nuanced world embedded within the language.

Riddley Walker’s world is objectively changed from our own: difficult, dangerous, and rife with lore. The language Hoban invented works on many levels to communicate a culture based on oral storytelling, where there are much more pressing daily concerns than spelling homophones, where very few people read or write anyway. Without having to say so directly, Hoban shows readers how Riddley’s society has descended from ours, and how it has retained only broken scraps of words with no concrete meaning. “Sarvering gallack seas” bears only passing resemblance to “sovereign galaxies” yet the people in Riddley’s world chant it as part of their funeral rites.

Despite all the intrigue, mystery, and general awesomeness Hoban packs into Riddley Walker, it never attained the fame or staying power of A Clockwork Orange. The reason for this, I believe, is that Hoban did his work too well. But all it takes is a few pages of effort before the reader slides into “Riddleyspeak” like putting on a glove. The outermost layer of your hand isn’t your skin anymore, and the outermost layer of your mind is running with dogs 2,000-odd years in an imagined future, but it fits just perfectly.

Sophie Gorjance completed a Plan in writing, and this excerpt is adapted from her Plan paper, “Riddleyspeak: Post-Apocalyptic Shifts in Language.” You can find excerpts of other Plans, and watch Sophie reading from her post-apocalyptic novella Under New Stars, in the Virtual Plan Room.

Photo by David Teter