Hoban, Russell

Tagged: Art | Author

(1925-2011) US-born author and illustrator, in the UK from 1969. After serving in World War Two, he worked in advertising and television until the mid-1960s, becoming a full-time writer in 1967. Most of his many titles are children's books, at least fifty of them being illustrated texts for younger children, like the first, What Does It Do and How Does It Work? (1959), or the Frances sequence beginning with Bedtime for Frances (1960 chap), or (to mention only one of his many, constantly inventive fables) La Corona and the Tin Frog (in Puffin Annual, anth 1974, ed Treld Bicknell, Frank Waters and Kaye Webb; graph 1979). Although not sf, his early masterpiece for children cannot go unnoticed: the potent allegorical burden of The Mouse and his Child (1967) may in fact have hampered its acceptance by the younger readers for whom it was ostensibly written, for the epic quest of a clockwork mouse and his son for a secure haven – where they will no longer need to undergo the existential trauma of needing to be rewound – is metaphorically dense and abidingly melancholy, and the Dolls' House they eventually reach does not absolve them from the Bondage [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] of their own form of mortality. The Mouse and his Child, like most of the greater children's books, is best read twice: as a child, and subsequently. Later books for children of strong interest include The Marzipan Pig (1986 chap), The Trokeville Way (1996) and Soonchild (2012), about a shaman who – discovering that the soonchild in her mother's womb cannot be born until she hears the World Songs – travels through lifetimes and Shapeshifter ordeals to bring the Songs home.

It was not until the 1970s that Hoban began to write the adult novels for which he became best known, beginning with The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), a Fabulation in which the raw Being of the long-dead lion of the world is embraced by the eponymous father and son in a moment of unity. Both Kleinzeit (1974) and Turtle Diary (1976) offer worlds displaced by language, though not on analysis literally fantastic. But Hoban's next novel, Riddley Walker (1980), for which he received the John W Campbell Memorial Award in 1982, is a genuine – and quite extraordinary – Ruined Earth tale, set 2000 or so years after the Holocaust in southern England, just as the barbarian societies of the land have rediscovered the use of gunpowder, and the first premonitions are sensed that the pastoral endlessness of their lives may soon darken/lighten into a resumption of something like "civilization". It is a situation much explored in the sf of the latter half of the twentieth century, and Hoban's penetration of the moral and cultural complexities involved is acute; but what distinguishes the book from other attempts to represent something like a full sense of how it might actually seem to inhabit such a world is its language (see Linguistics), a remarkably inventive and internally consistent presentation of an evolved and living form of English. The often-quoted first sentence of the novel gives something of the flavour:

On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

In this tongue, legends – like the tale of the "Littl Shynin Man the Addom" – seem told in a timeless present tense (which provides its own irony, as inflections of change begin to mark the text), and Riddley Walker's own groping progress towards an understanding of the dangers of a return to the old ways also seems told for the first time. He seems, in the end, too dangerously gifted to perform with any pleasing clarity the role of Culture Hero.

Subsequent novels included Fabulations of intriguing complexity: Pilgermann (1983) allows its eleventh-century protagonist to inhabit various eras in a kind of ghost form; The Medusa Frequency (1987) heavily foregrounds the myths of Orpheus and Medusa – Icons revisited throughout his career – in the tale of a twentieth-century novelist who, like the twinned parent and son of Hoban's first adult novel, strives to find the moment – or the tongue, or the tale – that will join all that is asunder together in a state of Being. The mire these protagonists stifle in – some of the tales assembled in The Moment under the Moment (coll 1992) are similarly perplexed – is not simply an epistemological muddle; for Hoban it is clear that the substance of the world (see Perception) is inherently a Labyrinth. The dance in deep space of the eponymous hero of Fremder (1996), dumped into ontological depths by the malfunction of a Space Warp drive which operates by flickering travellers into and out of nonbeing, is a movement toward some underlying fount of Being: a Muse, perhaps, or Medusa, at the heart of things.

The remarkable sequence of novels between 1998 and 2012 – ten titles in all – constituted a suite of studies of these matters, sometimes in a light vein, sometimes obdurately leaden. The first of them, Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer (1998), is perhaps the least convincing of the set, though it lays down the venue – usually London – and some of the tropes – voyages Underground by Underground; Sex games as frenetic as those of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) in his ferocious old age, and an intense engagement with the acts and art of labyrinth-penetrators like Picasso – that the remaining tales variously develop. Most remarkable may be the most recent two: My Tango With Barbara Strozzi (2007), once again featuring an old man, the London Underground as a portal to regions much further Underground, and a sexual dance between the aged seeker and the young Muse, in this case a woman who may be the Double [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] of the seventeenth-century Italian composer, Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677); and Angelica Lost and Found (2010), in which the hippogriff from the Orlando Furioso (1591) by Ludovico Ariosto [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] escapes his/its fictional immurement in the sixteenth century, undergoes various Identity Transfers in 2008, and ruts furiously with all and sundry in order to experience – it is a recurring theme in Hoban's works – the underlying fount of Being. No matter how recondite Hoban's later works became, however, their narratives retained a haunting translucency: the writer for children and the old man in the badlands spoke with a single voice. [JC]

see also: Anthropology; Devolution; Ditmar Award; History of SF; Ruins and Futurity.

Russell Conwell Hoban

born Lansdale, Pennsylvania: 4 February 1925

died London: 13 December 2011

works

children's fiction (highly selected)

adult fiction

links

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.