By Steve Dunk
In his adult novel debut, Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and NAACP Image Award finalist and ALA Alex and New England Book Award winner Tochi Onyebuchi delivers a sweeping science fiction epic in the vein of Samuel R. Delany and Station Eleven
In the 2050s, Earth has begun to empty. Those with the means and the privilege have departed the great cities of the United States for the more comfortable confines of space colonies. Those left behind salvage what they can from the collapsing infrastructure. As they eke out an existence, their neighborhoods are being cannibalized. Brick by brick, their houses are sent to the colonies, what was once a home now a quaint reminder for the colonists of the world that they wrecked.
A primal biblical epic flung into the future, Goliath weaves together disparate narratives—a space-dweller looking at New Haven, Connecticut as a chance to reconnect with his spiraling lover; a group of laborers attempting to renew the promises of Earth’s crumbling cities; a journalist attempting to capture the violence of the streets; a marshal trying to solve a kidnapping—into a richly urgent mosaic about race, class, gentrification, and who is allowed to be the hero of any history.
Goliath paints a morose time and place, made brighter through a series of interwoven “slice of life” tales of folks mostly living day to day. While the details of each of the particular stories may seem inconsequential, the collective messaging, the sum, is anything but. How important is it to zoom in, to put a face, to humanize those that have been oppressed, forgotten, and left behind? It’s a good driver of empathy, isn’t it, when you’re able to do that? Or at least it should be.
Yeah, there is that empathetic component. It’s something that I don’t really try to lean on in terms of the “why” of the writing of a thing, because when it comes to empathy, I think it’s a very sort of localized thing. Maybe you feel empathy while you’re reading, but then as soon as you close the book, you cross the street when you see a group of Black dudes on the corner of 145th and St. Nicholas, right? I feel like it’s that sort of thing.
It’s also not your job.
Exactly! It’s not my job to ameliorate your race consciousness, my advance was not big enough, and they don’t pay enough for that, but it was important to me. One of the things with Riot Baby was that it was so condensed and intentionally claustrophobic, that I didn’t get to really explore moments of joy and wonder that can come from the interaction between Black people in the world, particularly the natural world. It’s a book that exists at a very particular pitch and the baseline pitch of that book is almost screeching, and then by the end, it’s nails on the chalk board, right?
There’s a reason it’s less than 200 pages. I couldn’t live in that space for much longer than that, and so one of the opportunities that was afforded to me with Goliath was the opportunity to explore scope in many different ways, and part of that was scope of experience; it’s not all doom and gloom. Wherever historically you pinpoint Black people, not just in the Americas and not just in the United States, but across the entire globe, doom and gloom has not been the entirety of the experience.
Even if there is a single moment at a dinner table that prompts a smile or a laugh, or even a modicum of relief, it’s not all doom and gloom. And so, one of the things that I wanted to do with this book was I wanted it to be funnier. There aren’t a lot of “ha-ha” moments in Riot Baby. There’s the scene with the peanut, but I wanted to be funny in Goliath. I wanted to write scenes that would make me laugh. If I tried to do the same thing with Goliath that I did with Riot Baby, which is to exist at this sort of dolorous register for almost 400 pages, I don’t know where I’d be emotionally. I don’t know that I’d be in a place right now where I’d even be able to give this interview; I think I’d just be catatonic with grief because as a writer, you have to live in that space.
And for Goliath, I had to live in a particular space on and off for several years, and I needed there to be “happy” in the book. And not just jokes, but that sense of wonder, that sense of being able to tap into or stumble into magic, and in a way that doesn’t necessarily invoke fantasy or the literalization of magic, but in more of a metaphorical and grounded fashion.
I found it to be just a very human methodology. There’s so many of us that deal with tragedy and grief in different ways, and a lot of us rely on humor. Like you said, it’s not cheap laughs, they’re plot derivative, it’s these things we all encounter every single day. It’s very just mundane stuff, but it works so well because it’s juxtaposing a very specific type of catastrophe.
You use Detroit as a more contemporary example of a “city in ruin”, and how that affects the populace differently, whether you’re an affluent white, or a member of the marginalized community, predominantly Black. Do you think cities like Detroit, as a cautionary tale, have taught us anything at all and do have any hope for a brighter future?
I studied Detroit a lot when doing the research for this book and I remember in the 2010s there being this sort of mad scramble to sort of financially “save the city”. You know, there was the bankruptcy issue, there was it falling into receivership. It was almost like a sort of reverse heist. People were trying to get the money together to keep this city afloat, and I didn’t quite know what that meant, to keep a city afloat. I didn’t know necessarily how that would manifest itself in the lives of people.
I’m seeing all this language, I’m seeing how it’s being reported, and I’m thinking, “This is a good thing, right?” Like they’re saving this city, just look at the language that was being used in all the news coverage at the time in 2010s. You look at it and then you see that some of the reality is that people’s homes are being foreclosed and put on the market and sold to the sort of stereotypical white hipster for $300, right?
All this time and effort is being spent to save an art museum, or even to sell art from the museum to try to keep traffic lights on, and yet people can’t live in their home anymore, or they lose their running water because the utilities have been shut off. And that wasn’t something that I learned until deep into my research, and then I started discovering that there are many cities in America that are either bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy, right? Detroit was getting all of this press, but similar things were happening all over the country, and that really blew my mind away.
Also at that time, I was becoming very fascinated by the sort of financial dark arts. We were in the midst of the global recession, capital “G” capital “R”, and there was a lot of talk about credit default swaps, and Greece, and all sorts of stuff. And I was fascinated by the ways in which these bloodless financial terms like Foreign Direct Investment, CDS, and all that stuff, what the lived reality of those things were. Like, why did Greece collapse because of what some banks in America and the EU did?
I was seeing that happening in the United States and I wanted to untangle that. I wanted to see what that would look like if that sort of thing was to happen, and what would be the “after”? So yeah, I studied Detroit, and cities like it that were going through similar situations in the 2010s, a lot.
The reason why Detroit got the most attention was because the fall was so great. It was the pinnacle of American success, right? It was the “Motor City”, the city that drove America; it was the beacon of everything that they used to believe was so great about America. Even though the city was still recovering from the race riots, and all around this great innovation and automation and cars rolling off the line, and the Ford family, who were criminals in my opinion, surrounding all of that history, was gentrification and scores of Black people getting abused and brutalized.
So, in Goliath, human augmentation and advanced robotics are very much part of society and you mentioned at one point Boston Dynamics, which scares us every few months with a video of a machine parkouring or something. You mentioned the significance of 2050 earlier: some experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence thought we might have AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or what they call the “singularity” by then. So, your book is exactly mid-century, and that hasn’t happened, the singularity, but we do get some incredible technology for sure, tech that seems more and more plausible.
Your world lives in this equilibrium of sorts, where humans and technology coexist sort of symbiotically. This is obviously an abstract question, but do you think this will be the case, or are you waiting like me for Skynet to become self-aware? Clearly having watched Terminator too many times.
If Skynet exists, its purpose will be to get us to buy a sweater on Instagram, I think. That’s going to be the way we wake up one day, and we’re going to find ourselves somehow psychosocially manipulated into buying stuff, and psychosocially manipulated into buying a PS12 at retail. And we’re going to wake up and be like, “Wait! How did this happen? I wasn’t even thinking about a PS12!” and you’ll turn around and it’s going to be Skynet, right?
And so, I think that’s one of the ideas that so much technological innovation is financially motivated, is a big driver for why I wrote technology and technological advances the way that I did in Goliath, and the way that I do in my literature in general. We have this massive surveillance and data collection apparatus that isn’t necessarily being used for behavior modification the way it is in China. To a certain extent, it’s being used to get us to buy stuff we don’t need. Facebook, which has one of the most sophisticated and extensive data collection operations in the entire world, is devoted almost exclusively to advertisements.
And it’s willing to stoke genocide in Myanmar, and massacres perpetuated by Hindu fundamentalists in India, and the evisceration of several democratic institutions in the United States, just to get us to buy stuff. That’s it. I feel like financial impellent is going to be the engine for so much technological advancement. The reason we have peer-to-peer file sharing is because of adult films, right? It’s because of the porn industry, and that eventually led to Napster and Kazaa, and now there’s streaming services that we have everywhere, which are in many ways here because people wanted to be able to share videos of people having sex professionally.
It’s funny because on the surface, they want us to think that the most advanced A.I. is being used for healthcare, to help people, and while I do believe there is some of that going on, it’s what they are allowing us to see. What I think about the most is what aren’t they showing us. Again, Boston Dynamics shows us a dog or something, you know, a robot dancing to The Contours, and my cynical mind always drifts to, “OK, this is what they’re allowing us to see. What does the military have that they’re not showing us?” because we’re so easily distracted.
Right, meanwhile they’re putting a predator drone or a gatling gun on its back, you know, trouncing through 135th Street!
Neuroscience has made some interesting breakthroughs on memory, how we perceive them, how we process them. Studies are now saying that it may be impossible for humans to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way, usually there being some context, right?
Goliath tackles this subject, whether memory is consolidated or malleable. Where do you stand on this? And do you believe we conjure and manipulate memory to fulfill some emotional needs strictly, or do memories become more or less about a specific time and place, and about our emotional need to satisfy, to make sense of the world?
I think as humans, as Homo sapiens, we’re storytelling creatures, it’s how we organize the universe, it’s how people used to hunt; it’s how we sort of make our way through our lives. And there are many different types of memory. There’s the type of memory that animates the old saying, “You never forget how to ride a bike” or something similar. But I do think that memory does get manipulated in service of story.
When I was a kid we lived in New Britain, CT, and there was one summer in particular where we had a very bad raccoon problem. They were tearing our trash apart. And because this was during the summer, the olfactory punishment was particularly extensive. And, for the longest time I had this memory of my dad, who passed away the day before I turned 11, going out back with a giant stick. He was wearing a tank top and was this sort of massive demigod of a man, going out back through our screen door with this massive stick, and then coming back sometime later, sort of tired, maybe a little bit exhausted. In my recollection of that memory, he goes to kill the raccoon that’s been terrorizing us.
I offhandedly brought that memory up to my mom maybe a year or two ago, and she told me it was her that took care of the raccoon. So, for the majority of my life, and almost all of my adult life, I had misremembered the parent who had gone in taking care of our raccoon problem. And I had used that memory of my dad, that mis-memory of my dad in so much of my fiction and nonfiction, not necessarily explicitly, but as a sort of emotional engine because it told a very particular story of this man who no longer existed in my reality, and it was my mom the whole time, it was Agatha all along. That, to me, was such a revelatory moment.
In many ways, it was joyful to have the memory corrected, but also horrific that I could have lived with a misremembering of such an important detail for so much of my life. But it was instructive in terms of illustrating to me the ways in which memory can be manipulated to serve a particular narrative function for us, and so that’s why I’m always fascinated by the idea of the digitization of memory.
We see an externalization of that now with Instagram, and the fact that we can take pictures and record video with these electronic devices. Our phones, for instance, we can memorialize moments whether they’re instances or hour-long videos, or sixty-second Tiktoks, or what have you. We can immortalize everything to a certain extent, and I think one of the progressions that we might embark upon over the future is the increasing sort of internalization of those capabilities. You know, we may no longer need an external device to do that memorialization.
One of my favorite episodes of Black Mirror is “The Entire History of You,” which you know takes that very concept and uses it as the monkey wrench that collapses a marriage, and that has always been fascinating to me. It’s always been fascinating to me because, whether a dress is red or green in a memory, can make all the difference in the world sometimes.
Unlike most barren/wasteland type stories, rather than just surviving, your characters seem intent on living, but we all sort of know the ugly truth, don’t we? That the planet would be much better off without us. And while you don’t strike me as a nihilist, I can’t help but feel there’s a part of you that leans in that direction. Am I wrong there?
I like to think I’m a generally hopeful person, but there are arenas of thought for me where I guess you could say I engage in sort of extreme nihilism. You know the problem, for instance, of racism in America, I don’t think that goes away; I don’t think the arc of history bends towards justice, I just don’t. After every advancement historically there’s been backlash, incredible backlash. After the Civil War we got redemption and Jim Crow. After the civil rights struggle of the ’60s, we got the war on drugs, after Obama, we got Trump. There’s always that backlash.
But I also think it speaks to some of what we were talking about earlier, where the mentality that powers the perpetuation of racist systems doesn’t go away and people don’t give up power willingly. It must be taken from them; that’s the only way. This is a very crude and reductionist and reductive reading of history, but I do think one of the reasons why Dr. King was so effective was because Malcolm was waiting in the wings with a sawed-off shotgun. It’s that sort of thing. It’s like, “You could deal with me, or you could deal with the Nation of Islam dude, waiting in the anti-room,” right? That’s a big thing that powers social change.
One of the reasons why Brown vs. Board of Education was decided the way that it was because Chief Justice Warren wanted to prevent another civil war. It’s that sort of thing. And you even look at that, you look at that incredible Supreme Court decision, and you look at white folks throughout the South that were like, “Oh we have to desegregate schools? Okay then, no more schools.” That that was their reaction! They just let “school” die and shut down schools rather than have Black kids and white kids in the same classroom. You look at stuff like that and, how do you reason with that? How do you fight that? How do you combat that? With diversity in books?
One of the things that I constantly find myself coming to when people talk about how books are engines of empathy that will help heal our world, is that a lot of the people that let those schools die in the South, read books, right? While all of what’s happening now with race relations in America, the literature of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison is still available, is still in libraries, is still somewhat accessible.
Or being banned in some states.
Exactly! They exist, and they’re still being banned, or people are still attempting to ban them, and so, in some ways, in that regard, I am a sort of nihilist. I had a very fascinating conversation with a climate scientist not long ago, and I asked her how she does the work that she does amid all the sort of the hand-wringing and the cloth-rending and the gnashing of teeth. Like, how does she do the work that she does in the face of these increasingly apocalyptic pronouncements.
She was a co-author of one of the six chapters of the IPCC report, where she pointed at more local initiatives; things that were being embarked upon to sort of address certain specific things. Making various public transit vehicles electric, in sort of a widespread fashion, across cities like Albany and other cities throughout the country, things like that. But also, and very hilariously I might add, she said that so many of these decision makers, the types that are going to COP26, eventually, they’re just going to die. A lot of the people that are responsible for, not just the way that things are now, but for the perpetuation of these things, are just going to die eventually. We may not necessarily know who will replace them, but it won’t be them, and so that means there is the possibility that we may then get people, whether it’s the next batch or the batch after that, who could potentially enact meaningful change in that regard. And I thought that was hilarious, but she was dead serious.
Right, but it’s also potentially incredibly reductive, because the very loud and very clear message we’re given is that we must do something now. That’s what we hear all the time, isn’t it? That irreversible change is happening right now.
And this idea of inertia, that if all of a sudden the Earth stopped using anything that was harmful to the planet or the atmosphere overnight, there’s this concept of inertia, where the effect of climate change would take 15 to 20 years to even slow down before it came to a stop, before it started healing itself again. So, it’s kind of a peculiar strategy on her part only because we’ve been led to believe that climate change and global warming requires our immediate attention.
Right, because it’s already happening! You look at the desertification of the Sahara, which is pushing Fulani herdsmen deeper into Nigeria, resulting in clashes with pastoralists that has grown into a bigger security crisis for Nigeria than Boko Haram, right?
If you look at India, like after Diwali, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face because of the smoke and because of the smog from fireworks and everything. You look at cities throughout India, you look at cities throughout Pakistan, you look at cities throughout China, you literally can’t breathe. There are times where people walking through cities like Seoul in South Korea, they don’t necessarily just wear masks when they’re sick, they wear masks because the air quality is so low that it will damage their lungs.
Even in these highly industrialized and developed metropolises, it’s already happening. The damage that is being done to the Amazon, all this stuff, it’s already happening. It’s like when you put up a bad tweet and then there’s that meme that says, “The best time to have deleted this tweet was before you posted it. The second-best time to delete it is now.” So, the best time to have ameliorated climate change was yesterday, meaning immediately after the industrial revolution, but the second-best time to do it is now. Which would also imply that there may potentially be a third-best time, a fourth-best time, but I don’t think humans go away completely.
I feel like the way in which climate change is often talked about is, irreversible damage to the planet, right? But really, it’s irreversible damage to the idea of the planet’s habitability. Earth isn’t going anywhere, it’s always going to be here, it’s just that eventually we’re going to have heat waves that wipe out entire towns, where there’s no opportunity to get relief. Where the heat is so strong that it knocks out the electrical grid, so there are massive blackouts, resulting in no air conditioning. Local bodies of water will get so hot that they exceed body temperatures, so you can’t even find relief in them. Inevitably, that’s just where we’re heading, and I think people are just going to die, I think a lot of people are just going to die.
And that isn’t to say, “Oh, if that’s an inevitability, then we shouldn’t do anything about it, because it’s going to happen anyway.” No, it’s just to say that I do feel some of the urgency, while not necessarily misplaced, but the wrong thing is sort of powering it. People are going to die already because of the way that the climate is, people are dying already because of the way that the climate is, and we need to think and talk more honestly about what we’re going to be saving when we talk about these climate change initiatives. What will we be preserving and how can we make that better so that the worst of this stuff doesn’t keep happening, and potentially get even worse?
Okay, I was wrong, you are a nihilist!
Kidding aside, it’s a just an honest and forthright way to look at the situation, like Syria, for instance. One of the reasons Syria is in the situation it’s currently in, and the horrific scenes we’ve seen play out there the last handful of years, was because of drought. A lack of access to water forced all these outside regions to converge into one place because they couldn’t survive in those regions anymore, because there was no water, and they were forced all to live amongst each other in forced proximity. So, what do you think will happen? A literal and figurative bomb went off. That’s an oversimplification of what’s happening, obviously, but you know, I’ve said this so many times, having an ocean on either side of us keeps us sheltered in ways people just don’t always understand.
Oh yeah, and how this accident of geography has saved us from so many different instances and possibilities of total collapse.
Right, and it’s kept us ignorant to the beautiful and culturally rich parts of the world as well. It goes both ways. But not having a land crossing to so many different parts of the world where there are legitimate bad actors, it’s given us a false sense of security and a veiled ignorance at the same time.
So, for folks that enjoyed Goliath and are looking for something with a similar feel, are there any books you’d recommend? And if not maybe talk about a couple of books that you read for research.
Certainly! I think if you’re looking for books that engage with issues of climate in very grim but also a kind of hopeful fashion, it would be criminal if I didn’t recommend The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, which deserves every single accolade that it got and probably more. It’s just so tremendous and I think it’s another great example of a grim story that is riddled with shards of hope. I can’t tell you what that book did to me, oh my goodness, it was amazing.
Another book that I’ll mention, which was brought up earlier, is American War by Omar El Akkad, a criminally under-talked-about book. When I read that book, I thought for sure it was a shoo-in for a spot on the National Book Award shortlist that year. It flew very much under the radar, but it is such a tremendous book and I think what El Akkad was able to pull off there is incredible because in the hands of a lesser writer it would have very much fallen apart. It would have been very gimmicky, it would have been very trite, but what he does is an incredibly human thing.
Also, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s such an incredible book, but also, I think the way in which it talks about, or the way in which it engages the issue of migration, I think, is going to be looked at it and called very prescient as we get deeper into this age of climate migration.
Thanks so much, Tochi!
Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of Riot Baby, a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and NAACP Image Awards and winner of the New England Book Award for Fiction; the Beasts Made of Night series; and the War Girls series. He has earned degrees from Yale University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbia Law School, and Sciences Po. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Omenana Magazine, Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, and elsewhere. His nonfiction has appeared in Tor.com and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. His most recent book is the non-fiction (S)kinfolk.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.