RIOT BABY – Tochi Onyebuchi

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see torches in the woods, keep going.  If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” 

Riot Baby, 124

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020) perfectly illustrates how successful science fiction can be at providing social commentary on the injustices of the world.  In this case, it’s the centuries of repeated aggression and violations on black and brown bodies.  Clocking in at under 200 pages, this novella is a light weight that packs one hell of a wallop.

Ella has a Thing, and by Thing, I mean a special power.  She can control the atmosphere.  She can walk through the past and the future.   She can kill with but a look. It’s a destructive, untamed fire that rages within her, and she cannot control it.  She leaves her young brother and her mother to protect them because she’s afraid of what she will do.

Ella’s brother, Kevin, was born during the Rodney King riots.  He’s a smart kid, good with computers and numbers.  Under the protective shield of Ella’s powers, he thrives in a city that eats its youth.  But then she leaves, and he is no longer protected.  Kevin becomes just another boy of the streets just struggling to stay alive.  An attempted robbery lands him at Rikers.  Anger ignites in his soul, his body electric with hate.

Ella’s powers allow her to visit with her brother, and some of the power sticks to his skin – allowing him to see the things she’s seen, to walk through history and see the burning crosses, white faces contorted in hate, the broken and bloated brown and black bodies tossed in rivers, dragged behind trucks, and hung from trees.  It’s enough to suck all hope from a person.  It also allows him to walk in the shoes of his fellow inmates and prison guards.  Neither is an ability he wants.

Kevin is eventually paroled to Watts, a self-contained community of people just like him.  (And a place history remembers for its own riots.) A chip is implanted in his thumb that monitors his location as well as his vitals.  It also operates a key card to allow him access to his home.  He is happy here.  Or so he thinks.  But things aren’t always what they seem.  The fire still rages in Ella, fully under control and command, and he is the Riot Baby.

I have never read something quite so angry and full of despair as Riot Baby, but what is most striking is the hope that sparks just beneath the surface like a recently lit match.  Keep going.

Read this book.

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