The titular character of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby was born in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, and the book follows him (and his superpowered sister) as he grows up, constantly faced with obstacles due to his race; as he is put into a racist and exploitative carceral system; and finally, into an SFnal future where the systemic racism that’s shaped his life is made that much more efficient with new technological innovations. It is a book brimming with anger in a way that, by the end, reminded me of Jemisin’s Broken Earth books (and in fact, the author references those books as an inspiration in the afterword).
And so taken on those terms, as a book that’s trying to viscerally communicate the awfulness and hopelessness and endless ratcheting impositions of living in a society suffused with racism, it succeeds. It’s searing, and if you ever start to think “well, maybe it’s not always this bad,” you just need to look at the news to be disabused of that notion. (I was thinking as I wrote this, that the book is incredibly timely with this week’s events; but then realized that depressingly it would have been just as timely months ago, or years ago, and will likely be timely in the future, too.)
Taken as an SF novel, though, it worked less well for me. Mostly this is because the fantastic elements of the book aren’t really explored in any thorough way. The superpowered heroine doesn’t really get a lot of time fleshing out the details of what she can do, or why, or how. It’s kind of a background element that’s just there, accepted by the characters in the story as just a Thing. Which is clearly a deliberate choice the author made, but which left me feeling like the book was skipping over an important element, in the way that novelettes and short stories tend to background their SFnal elements out of wordcount necessity.
But, look, I can see that this complaint comes perilously close to “the book spent too much time on all this race stuff, and didn’t give me the superpower book I really wanted,” and that’s obviously a pretty shitty and off-point critique to make. So I guess what I’ll say is, go into this knowing what you’re getting: Yes, there are SFnal and fantastic elements, but fundamentally this isn’t a book that’s delving deep into those. They’re there for a reason, they’re critical to the story being told, but end of the day, this is mostly a story set in the present-day about a character living in our actual society. Recommended for anyone more interested in the characters and the portrait of an unjust society than the fantastic elements.