The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Riot Baby' by Tochi Onyebuchi Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Riot Baby' by Tochi Onyebuchi Review

Alexander Wallace reviews another of this year's Hugo Awards nominees.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech at Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, March 14th, 1968

The United States has, to the shock of the world, been embroiled in riot after riot, civil unrest after civil unrest, due to police shooting after police shooting. It’s a vicious, ugly cycle where the people who could alleviate the most suffering seem unwilling to do anything that could improve things. It’s the inglorious story of government, on levels local, state, and federal, in America.

It is in Riot Baby where Tochi Onyebuchi seeks to address the fuming rage, beget of a feeling of helplessness, that has set many American cities ablaze. It concerns two children, brother and sister. The brother, Kev, was born during the Los Angeles riots of 1993, hence the title of the book. His sister, Ella, has a wide variety of psychic powers. Things come to a head when Kev is arrested by the NYPD for no good reason at all.
This is a book that courses with righteous anger. This is not a book that can in any way be described as ‘non-political’ (if any book can be described as such). Riot Baby tackles head-on a very real social issue in unflinching terms. It is a powerful book, but it is one that also by necessity will discomfort you. Caveat Lector, but I assure you this passes the Crossley Test (having ‘good storytelling, not just good issues,’ to quote Robert Crossley’s afterword to Octavia Butler’s Kindred).

In some ways, Ella’s supernatural powers are almost an afterthought. This is a heavily character driven story, about a brother whose freedom has been stolen from him and a sister that works to free him. It is a story about oppression and resistance, misery and liberation from misery. You feel the siblings’ pain, and the pain of their mother who struggles to survive. It is a powerful story emotionally, and it will linger in me.

There’s something very literary about Onyebuchi’s prose, and how he digs into the characters, in a way that reminds me a bit of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. His prose is restrained, but imbued with an intimacy that is rare in speculative fiction. The characters are both themselves and representatives of their people, and one is never allowed to overwhelm the other. They work in tandem masterfully.

Riot Baby is ripped from the headlines and given a supernatural sheen. It is masterfully crafted and beautifully written. Most of all, it is powerful, and deserves great credit for that.

The 2021 Hugo Nominees: Reviews
'Finna' by Nino Cipri
'Ring Shout' by P. Djèlí Clark
'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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