Many Cools is a blog about pretty much everything, but mostly about writing and language. I’m a writer, so I want to write about writing, and I’ll throw in some highly subjective reviews of things I’m interested in as well.
What’s with the title of this blog?
Well, I guess in the spirit of its origins, the title of this blog means a lot of things. ‘Many cools’ is a phrase I picked up from Russell Hoban‘s amazing novel Riddley Walker, which is written in a strange post-apocalyptic, post-literacy dialect known as Riddleyspeak. I highly recommend you pick up a copy, but don’t expect an easy read as there’s barely a word of recogniseable English in the whole thing. If you are planning on reading it, watch out, because here be spoilers.
Riddley Walker is a book about language and how easy it is to misinterpret. About how it shifts and evolves over time. I love this. I believe that the idea that language should be a static thing that never changes goes totally against its nature, and people who can’t allow for new versions of language to emerge are attempting to hold back an inevitable tide.
At the same time, language is vital for communication, and it’s important that it follows certain internally coherent rules. Otherwise it’s just carnage and the whole of society falls apart. Language needs to change and adapt around a set of rules so that it continues to make sense but also continues to be relevant.
That’s what Riddley Walker is about. Riddley says, ‘I wisht every thing wud mean jus only 1 thing and keap on meaning it not changing all the time.’ Poor Riddley. He’s struggling to understand himself and his world in an era of turbulent change. Pretty much no-one can read or write, and when they stumble upon an ancient text from the lost civilisation, they struggle to interpret it.
It’s a religious text called the ‘Legend of St Eustace’, and it’s picked over by Riddley and his sometime companion Abel Goodparley. Abel Goodparley’s name is, like all the names in Riddley’s world, a good indicator of his personality. He’s a spindoctor. He’s good at parlance. But that doesn’t mean he can tell Riddley what the ‘Legend of St Eustace’ really means.
Riddley asks him, in reference to a line from the text, ‘What’s the Spirit of God?’ and Abel Goodparley replies, ‘That’s chemistery and fizzics.’
This is a world where Christianity has gone the way of the dinosaur and has been replaced by a superstitious, mythological and mutated understanding of the science that destroyed the world. The people in Riddley’s world have a vague idea of a ‘1 big 1’ (a giant nuclear explosion) that took place centuries ago and wiped everything out. They’ve mixed this forgotten memory together with bits of the old religion and observations of their new world to create ‘Eusa’s Story’, an origin myth that tries to tie it all together.
Eusa (St Eustace, and perhaps also a reference to the USA, home of the atomic bomb) was a prophet who preached about ‘the many cools of Addom and the party cools of stoan’. Many cools are molecules, but they’re so much more than that. ‘Addom’ is both the atom and Adam – the source of nuclear energy and the biblical father of mankind. ‘Party cools’ are particles of ‘stoan’; ‘Stoan’ is ore, or ‘one stone’ a translation of ‘Einstein‘.
So ‘many cools’ are the molecules of a split atom and of Adam – they represent the genesis and destruction of the human race and everything in between. They’re the cogs and gears behind everything, including language. The many cools of language are the words we use to construct it, and the chemistery and fizzics of language are the rules we keep in mind when doing so.
As you can probably gather from this very small example of the way language works in Riddley Walker, there are all sorts of exciting confusions and overlaps within language. A word can all at once mean one thing and something totally different, and in its symbolism makes multiple overt and covert references to a myriad other things.
Riddleyspeak may appear illiterate and a bit dumb – but it’s not. It’s extremely clever, and inherently contingent upon the rules of language that form it. For every new word he’s invented, Hoban ensures that word carries multiple insightful connotations relating to its meaning for society. ‘Nuclear’ in Riddleyspeak is ‘new clear’ – which signifies a new, clean energy (as it was sold in the 1950s). Hoban masterfully ties in the original propaganda about nuclear energy with an ironic acknowledgement of post-Hiroshima fears about fallout and contamination by simply respelling the word according to its phonetic structure.
The most important thing about this book is that it isn’t just saying that’s how language works in Riddleyspeak: it’s saying that’s how language works, full stop. How often do we really say what we mean? How much time do we spend picking over other people’s words trying to get to the truth behind them? Language is a slippery thing, always blippin & bleapin & movin in the shiftin uv thay Nos. Sum tyms bytin sum tyms bit.
Sometimes I go on a lot about books I like.
Trying to explain how this blog is inspired by Riddley Walker is a tricky proposition as the book itself is so wonderfully complicated and really I just wanted to make a respectful nod in its direction by calling my blog Many Cools. I liked the phrase because it also indicates the evolving language of the internet. Many Cools implies ‘lots of cool things are here’. I very much hope this to be the case.
- Happy birthday, Russell Hoban! (iupress.typepad.com)
- Tom Bullough’s Top Ten Science Fiction Reads (thepenguinblog.typepad.com)