Book review: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

This 2021 Hugo Award nominee is a difficult but rewarding read.  It features compelling characters and exciting worldbuilding.  It blends history with fantasy and predicts some disturbing technological growth.  On the other hand, its structure is sometimes confusing to follow, and the prose is difficult to read, with switching viewpoints and generous use of colloquialisms.  When read slowly and carefully, though, this novella may be worth the reader’s time.

Ella is a young girl, growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.  She has special powers: she can visualize the future of the person she is looking at.  Her mother, heavily pregnant, goes into labor on the eve of the Rodney King racial riots.  She gives birth to Kev, the titular riot baby.  Soon, the family moves to the East Coast to Harlem.  The children grow up in poverty, largely in the streets.  Kev makes friends and allies among the local gangs.  Ella’s powers grow; she can destroy things and animals with her mind.  The streets are not too forgiving: Local police harass the black youth on made-up charges, and beatings or short incarcerations are the norm.  At 18, Kev gives the police an excuse when he tries his hand at an armed robbery and fails.  He is sent to jail for a long time.

Ella visits Kev in jail on occasion.  By that time, she can travel between places with only a thought, she can make herself or others invisible and project herself into the past, to observe local events.  She often tells Kev about these travels, and Kev in turn tells her about his hallucinations.  Eventually, Kev is released on probation to a futuristic community where he receives a home to live in, on a street full of other criminals, a place to work, and a tracking chip in his hand that monitors his body functions and releases chemicals to make him docile.  Ella visits him there as well and takes him along throughout history, to observe racism in the US.  She convinces him that equality would only be achieved via a revolution.  Kev cuts out his tracking chip, and the story ends.

I found Riot Baby to be an exceedingly difficult story to read, for multiple reasons.  My biggest problem was that I did not have any background information on racism in the US.  I’ve been seeing it on the news from across the ocean, and this left me emotionally detached from the entire issue.  This book, however, is trying to stir emotions, and that is bound to fail for people like me.  Related to this, the prose uses a copious amount of colloquialisms, especially during the interaction between black teens, which people growing in the US may be familiar with, but in those moments I could just hope I got the meaning.  Finally, the multiple timelines and two points of view confused me a little.  As a result, I focused on technological progress on the law enforcement side.

One of the book’s main strengths was in its worldbuilding.  The author described a world that was bleak, full of danger and police straight from a Robocop movie.  The sections that played out in the prison were oppressive, but nicely demonstrated plausible ways to streamline control over prison population.  The probation was a little less plausible, though.  I don’t believe we’ll get to a stage where convicts are given their own houses, and that implants can produce an unlimited amount of various chemicals at will.  It sounded quite futuristic, but in my opinion also a little naïve.

What I fully enjoyed, however, was the set pieces.  Onyebuchi is a master of atmospheric description.  From black teens loitering on a street corner and being harassed by police, through prisoners being forced to perform life-threatening stunts for the entertainment of an audience, to a decadent but deteriorating upper class society at horse races, the settings were always very vivid.  I rarely came so close to visualizing the setting and soaking up the atmosphere as here.  In this regard, I appreciated Ella and Kev more as narrators than protagonists.

I probably misunderstood this book.  For me, it was a series of excellent set pieces, held together with a string of technological advancement in law enforcement.  Perhaps the technological growth contrasted with the lack of social advancement, but the scope of the book did not allow the author to delve too much into this topic.  In any case, my careful reading only went as far as to appreciate the atmosphere and setting, but not to understand the characters or their motives.  Riot Baby will not leave a lasting impact, but it provided for a few pleasant evenings while I was reading it.

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