James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Keep Changing the World

Riot Baby

By Tochi Onyebuchi 

18 Jan, 2020

Doing What the WFC Cannot Do


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Tochi Onyebuchi’s 2020 Riot Baby is a standalone science fiction novella. 

Fleeing LA following the King riots, Ella and her brother Kev are destined for typical American childhoods — that is, typical for African Americans. Frequently unpleasant, subject to violence and injustice. Ella is a precog, which in this case isn’t all that great. She sees what’s coming at her and often it isn’t good. 

Kev is bright and interested in computers. The best thing for Kevin, the best thing for society at large, would be steering him towards the computer industry. But the American prison-industrial complex needs workers and Kev is just the kind of worker they want. He’s already subject to routine police harassment. The next stop is prison. 

Once in prison, he’s punished and brutalized. He turns into the kind of person the system wants him to be: faulty in ways that allow others to see him as sub-human, but still useful to the bosses. It’s unpleasant for Kev but (one presumes) lucrative for the shareholders.

The one bright note in Kev’s life is his sister Ella. Thanks to her psychic powers, she isn’t limited to visiting in the flesh. She can even grant her brother momentary out-of-body respite from his surroundings. This isn’t enough to shield either of them from harsh reality.

What happens when a designated victim can burn it all down?


Everything works together to narrow Kev’s life to one path, painful for him, useful to the bosses. Even when he’s being rehabilitated, he’s just being pulled further into the prison-industrial complex.

This book reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Patternist books. But in the early Patternist books, the antagonist is a single supernatural entity from whom the reader can feel safely remote. In Riot Baby, the enemy is society itself, which would include most readers. Even if one doesn’t work for the prison-industrial complex, one benefits from it. Some products are cheaper, some potential economic competitors are removed.

There isn’t really any way to put a happy face on this. The author is not interested in doing so, which seems fair. This book is not a comfort read, but as I said in a recent review, not every book has to be comfy. The characters are convincing enough that the reader will care about them and their situation. The plot moves along briskly because it must: novella length forces a welcome narrative efficiency. If you’re tired of saggy trilogies, you might try this. 

Riot Baby is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).