A powerful dystopian novella
Ella has a Thing. She sees a classmate grow up to become a caring nurse. A neighbor’s son murdered in a drive-by shooting. Things that haven’t happened yet. Kev, born while Los Angeles burned around them, wants to protect his sister from a power that could destroy her. But when Kev is incarcerated, Ella must decide what it means to watch her brother suffer while holding the ability to wreck cities in her hands.
Rooted in the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is as much an intimate family story as a global dystopian narrative. It burns fearlessly toward revolution and has quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.
Ella and Kev are both shockingly human and immeasurably powerful. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by racism. Their futures might alter the world.
In Tochi Onyebuchi’s first book for Tor.com, we are introduced to Ella and Kev: sister and brother, navigating contemporary and future America. This is an unstinting look at the injustices of modern society, as well as an extrapolation of where the country could be headed if these failings are left unchecked. It’s a powerful story, and I very much enjoyed reading it.
The story starts with Kev’s arrival. He is the “riot baby” of the title, born during the Los Angeles riots after the non-conviction of the policemen who beat Rodney King. Roughly equally split between Ella’s and Kev’s perspectives, each provides readers with a window into the harsh realities of poverty, racial oppression, and the fractures in society. The alternating narrative is well composed and structured.
Ella, whose powers manifest early, struggles with controlling her abilities and eventually distances herself from her family. Hers is a life of self-suppression, keeping her powers in check despite the possibilities they offer — to right wrongs, to prevent injustice, and to improve the lives of others. (There’s a nice moment early on when she lowers the temperature in the family’s un-air conditioned apartment one summer.) Should she use her powers for good? Given who she is, the colour of her skin, should she remain hidden? Is it safer for her to exist totally under the radar? As she grapples with these questions, she travels America, dropping in to different regions and critiquing those who would keep her “in her place” and portray themselves as her betters.
What if I’m the answer? she had asked herself. What if I’m the one we’ve been praying for?
Kev, meanwhile, starts as a promising student and whiz with technology; ultimately, he succumbs to the realities of his situation, and in reaction to the structural roadblocks and racism he faces on a daily basis falls onto the wrong side of the law (they routinely treat him like a criminal anyway). His childhood is characterized by the safety of his family and the potential hostility from others — his neighbours and also the police. What does his future hold? Will he be able to break the cycle of those around him? Through his experiences, we get to see a number of the routine injustices, as well as the ways in which the US “Justice” system is both cruel and broken. He adjusts his worldview and behaviour to survive — in prison and without — raging against the system, but equally (towards the end) faintly captured by it and beaten into submission. Through him, we see how modern freedoms are not always what they seem to be.
“… You out, Youngblood. When you think about what you can’t do, think about what you get to do. You get to earn money.”
“I earned money inside, too. I had a job. I fixed computers. How is this any different?”
I liked that Onyebuchi didn’t spend much time explaining Ella’s “Thing” — instead, he introduces different aspects of her powers as-and-when she uses them (or develops them). They’re all analogues of powers we’ve seen in any number of super-powered stories, but each is used in a new way and through a different experiential lens. Oftentimes, it is what Ella doesn’t do that conveys her internal fury and frustration, and gives us an idea of how powerful she really is.
“Ella,” I tell her through gritted teeth, “I can’t afford to be angry anymore. I can’t. I don’t have it in me to keep being this angry.”
Ella kneels down so we’re eye to eye. “Did you ever stop being angry?” she asks me, softly but with Mama’s sternness.
Throughout the novel, the author offers critiques and observations about modern society. He includes sharp satires of contemporary mores; he clearly portrays contemporary injustices and their long roots in American culture and history. Later in the book, Onyebuchi also provides some excellent commentary about Big Tech. You may have noticed the news stories that revealed that algorithms can be/are racist. In Riot Baby, the author asks how this might develop, if algorithms start to run ever-more of our lives and societies (especially law enforcement). The sinister oppression of algorithmic violence and subjugation hovers over the final chapters of the book.
Overall, then, this is a fantastic short novel. Powerful, moving, and gripping. Definitely recommended. I enjoyed this a lot.