I don’t remember the last time a novella, oh heck, any book, has been so strong and thoughtful before totally collapsing for me in the last two pages.
“Riot Baby” is not a directive, as I’d mistakenly believed: it’s a nickname. Kev is born during the L.A. riots that blaze in the aftermath of the acquittal of the police officers who savagely beat Rodney King. Afterwards, Kev, his mother Lainey and his older sister Ella move from California to Harlem in search of a better life, only to find gang violence and police brutality just as much a factor on the East Coast as it was back home. Ella also has to grapple with the burgeoning of strange powers that she can’t quite control. Back in California, her main special ability was precognition, with the too-often distressing ability to see into the blighted futures of the people around her. In New York, however, her abilities bloom and spiral till she’s forced to exile herself from everyone she loves out of fear of hurting them.
Bereft of Ella’s company and protection, Kev falls in with the wrong crowd, giving up on love and a settled future, and winding up in jail instead. Having gained some mastery of her powers, Ella comes to visit him, in body and spirit, as much as she can. But a tension grows between them: since she’s so powerful, Kev wonders, why can’t she bust him out of prison? But Kev’s own powers are growing as well, as the siblings are forced to come to terms with their bond and what it means to survive in a future just a smidge more dystopian than our own.
As both sci-fi and allegory, this really worked for me for the first 99% of the book. Police misconduct and wrongful incarceration, especially against Black people, continues to be an American tragedy. Ella’s helpless omniscience serves as a powerful reader stand-in: we know it’s bad, but what can we actually do now to stop it? Can we harness our rage and our collective power to change this terrible system without bringing an unjust retribution down onto our own heads? How do we justify a measured response and sustained political pressure against the lives lost every day to that system’s inhumanity?
These are all excellent questions laid out by Tochi Onyebuchi as he meticulously documents the too-real horror of the world we live in, giving his narrative just enough of a bend of dystopia and the supernatural to appeal to readers who might not pick up this book otherwise. But his solution in the last two pages is for Kev and Ella to just make America uninhabitable and then clear out forty acres for themselves (and perhaps some chosen ones.) AYFKM? Even setting aside the defeatist nonsense that genocide a/o climate disaster are the only ways to fix this country, the Indigenous peoples have a much better claim on any land in the Americas than two siblings whose big idea is to keep perpetuating the destructive consumption cycle introduced by colonizing Europeans.
That was a weirdly disappointing ending to an otherwise thoughtful novella. This will, alas, be coming near last on my slate for this year’s Hugo for Best Novella.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi was published January 21st 2020 by tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including