When author Tochi Onyebuchi closed the cover of Robert Jordan’s third book in “The Wheel of Time” series, the last scene of “The Dragon Reborn” still played before his eyes like a vision. As a high school student delving into epic fantasies for the first time, Onyebuchi said it felt like an out of body experience to be holding the book in front of his face on his living room floor, but feel so viscerally transported somewhere else. In quick succession, he had thought, “Wow, I’m still here. Wow, somebody did this to me. Wow, I can be the person who makes somebody else feel this feeling.”
Onyebuchi—whose fourth book “Riot Baby” is out now—was born to Nigerian immigrant parents in Northampton, Massachusetts before the family moved to Connecticut during his childhood. The neighborhoods, schools, and churches Onyebuchi grew up in were predominantly white. In retrospect, Onyebuchi understands that he experienced the world differently than most of his peers. And it wouldn’t be until he enrolled in law school that he “got woke” about the sharp contrasts between the lives of black and white Americans.
After Onyebuchi’s Robert Jordan-inspired epiphany, science fiction and fantasy completely enveloped his reading and writing. Throughout high school, college, film school, and law school, he wrote nearly 100,000 words every year, meaning he churned out more than a dozen 400-page books before getting his first book deal in 2017. (All of which he tried to sell, even when he was still a teenager.)
The 1990s X-Men comics factored heavily into Onyebuchi’s reading at the time. Long before the age of trade paperback compendiums, he hustled to buy the individual issues of “Uncanny X-Men” and “X-Factor.” He found himself drawn to character of Magneto, the villain turned antihero, whose origin story as a Holocaust survivor and mistreated mutant made him believe that ordinary humans couldn’t coexist peacefully with mutants. At the time, Onyebuchi couldn’t quite articulate why he was attracted to a character who was at odds with the archetypal heroes.
Prior to “X-Men,” most of the stories he consumed emphasized the hero, reconciliation, and vanquishing an individual enemy. Despite this, Onyebuchi said, “I thought [Magneto] was right, and I couldn’t untangle that. I didn’t learn about race theory at school. I didn’t pick up on this metaphor for the civil rights movement.” The hero Charles Xavier insists that mutants and humans can achieve a peaceful co-existence, but Magneto points out that humans never hesitate to discriminate against and kill mutants. This was the first time that Onyebuchi saw that dynamic exposed. The X-Men were created by Jewish authors Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and while the theme of disenfranchisement can apply to many marginalized communities, there’s a strong parallel of Xavier and Magento to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when it comes down to the disagreement about whether peaceful protests yield any results.
One of the first news stories Onyebuchi recalls being consciously aware of is the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Watching that camcorder video footage on TV with his parents, followed by the subsequent uprisings, made a strong impression on him. Fast forward to 2015 when Onyebuchi graduated law school: the non-indictment of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin brought on a new generation of uprisings with the Black Lives Matter movement. Camcorder evidence evolved into cell phone footage, Facebook Live, and Twitter. “The Laquan McDonald dash cam footage was so widely disseminated into our digital living rooms,” Onyebuchi said.
Onyebuchi recalls his anger at the time. “Nothing sizeable was changing to prevent this from happening again. When Tamir Rice happened, we were begging to just give us a trial. We weren’t even asking for an indictment or to throw [Timothy Loehmann] in jail. We just wanted the trial. It got me thinking, ‘What does it do to a person when that’s what you’re begging for?’” Again, the character of Magneto spoke to Onyebuchi. “What if somebody came along who had power to literally burn it all down? Not to change laws, or policy, but to reduce the police station to ash?” That was how “Riot Baby” was born.
“Riot Baby” tells the story of Ella and Kev, siblings who are engulfed by systemic racism from South Central to Harlem. The novel opens with a young Ella trying to make sense of the violence brewing in her neighborhood in reaction to someone named Rodney King. Her mother gives birth to Kev amid the worst of the chaos. The book jumps through time in four different parts so readers see how their lives unfold. Kev falls prey to a crooked criminal justice system that arrests him for simply being black. Ella, on the other hand, has superpowers that she doesn’t fully understand. She can see the future, explode rats, manifest balls of energy, levitate objects, and teleport herself. “How do you give a godlike character drama and conflict?” Onyebuchi asked. “You give them something they’re not able to protect.” Despite the immensurable power Ella holds, she can’t protect Kev from his fate. But that’s just the beginning.
Onyebuchi brings elements of a photo-realistic past, present, and near future to the world in “Riot Baby,” with just a dash of superpowers. While many of the historical events portrayed are nearly carbon copies of our own, telling this story through the lens of speculative fiction provides, “an inherently powerful set of tools,” Onyebuchi said. “There’s so much you can do there. You can operate as reality and metaphor at the same time. A first contact story is about aliens, but it’s really about colonialism. ‘X-Men’ is about laser beam eyes and moving things with minds, but it’s also about civil rights and separatism.”
At the same time, Onyebuchi wanted to eliminate the risk that his message in “Riot Baby” could get buried under allegory or dismissed outright. Had Onyebuchi not told Ella and Kev’s story in a contemporary setting, he predicted readers might conclude, “This is just about a girl who can fly. It’s not about what incarceration and structural racism can do to a person.” Oftentimes white readers of sci-fi and fantasy will overlook the allegories for racism (or the author’s own racial prejudices), and claim the story is simply about spaceships or elves. These readers view books as precious objects that shouldn’t be evaluated critically, and they might shrug off valid concerns by accusing other readers of trying to be “social justice warriors.”
Of course, these divides extend beyond readers, too. Between the summer of 2013 and fall of 2014, the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown sent shock waves through America, and Onyebuchi realized that a significant chunk of his Facebook friends perceived America to be a different universe than he perceived America to be. People showed sides of themselves that he didn’t know were there. As a student at Columbia Law, this only heightened his realization that there was no majestic neutrality of the Supreme Court, no colorblindness of the law, no impartiality of legal institutions.
Kev’s story is as much about one person’s struggle to escape a false sentence as it is about what a slippery slope the criminal justice system is. Even when you’re innocent, the odds are intentionally stacked against people of color. Onyebuchi triumphs in exposing these facts in gripping narrative form.
Equally engrossing, are Onyebuchi’s evaluations of nascent technologies like algorithms and microchips, which don’t take much fictionalizing to see how they’re the next phase of institutionalized racism. Like the TV show “Black Mirror,” “Riot Baby” shows you the logical conclusion of the current problems of technology. “Coders inject their blind spots into their coding, so it’s like their DNA, in a certain respect,” Onyebuchi said. “If largely straight white men are writing the code implemented by police departments or hospitals, it’s going to reflect their worldview and priorities. We need to find ways of holding these builders accountable.”
Tech companies already don’t have the financial incentives to change their platforms when people of color are harassed off sites like Facebook and Twitter. So in the meantime, we need to put the breaks on algorithms in future policing as much as possible. Onyebuchi said, “I don’t have words how apocalyptic that is.” Coming a prolific speculative fiction author, that’s really saying something.
Tochi Onyebuchi will be in conversation with Ken Liu and Elizabeth Bear to discuss "Riot Baby" at Brookline Booksmith on Friday January 24th at 7pm.