Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020) is a short, incisive read, but it feels larger, a sharp, powerful tale using the illuminating lens of speculative fiction to examine American racial injustice. It involves a pair of remarkable siblings: older sister Ella and younger brother Kev, born in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. On top of coping with structural racism in their lives, Ella also has super-powers, far-reaching abilities that enable her to see into both the past and the future. Kev knows those powers may get Ella into trouble some day, but he’s got his own problems, as circumstance sends him into the prison system, another Black victim of systemic criminal injustice. Separated by distance—and bars— the siblings navigate a world hostile to their existence, but their parallel journeys may ultimately lead to transformative change.
Riot Baby starts in an intriguingly disjointed way, with something of a short fiction rhythm to its narrative at first. However, by strategically layering fantasy elements into its realistic world-building, the novel’s powerful critique gradually comes into focus, its themes more pronounced. Much as Ella’s powers enable her to journey literally through time, Onyebuchi uses the tools of fantasy and science fiction to do the same, revisiting historical events in a fantastical way, as well as forging forward into a vividly depicted future. The common thread, across its various times and places, is the persistent dystopian reality of structural racism; it may change form over the years, but remains stubbornly embedded. Ella and Kev’s story, however, is a formative one that may serve as a path to eventual change, injecting this short novel with a powerful message of speculative hope. An impressive, memorable tale.