Tochi Onyebuchi’s masterful new near-future dystopia “Goliath” tells the story of an Earth that parallels our own. Onyebuchi shines light where we often don’t see it in sci-fi. “Goliath” is an unapologetically authentic Black American epic unlike any that I have read before. The dystopian nature of the Earth isn’t because of some extraterrestrial force, but from a terrifying combination of eco-fascism and white supremacy.
“Goliath” isn’t an easy novel to get into at first. There are many viewpoints that can leave you discombobulated, but, like a master weaver at the loom, Onyebuchi slowly reveals the terrifyingly accurate picture he paints of Earth’s future.
In “Goliath,” the pandemic is something of the past that the protagonist’s parents or grandparents have experienced. Now, in 2050, the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of the world have already settled space colonies to escape a dying earth, where poisoned air and radiation leaks blow cancer rates to massive numbers. White flight here isn’t defined as redlining, but by the white suburbs literally flying away, emptying out into space and leaving the less fortunate on Earth to contend with the mess.
In this post-apocalyptic environment, Onyebuchi pays homage to the ingenuity and tenacity of Black and brown communities. Even the homes of Earth dwellers are stripped for their bricks to send to the colonies, decorating wealthy homes with a faux sense of history. The locals left behind after the exodus create communities that help upkeep their homes, gather supplies from depots and ensure that everyone around them is taken care of. When the funding and necessities have all been pulled away, what is left behind?
The story begins a few generations removed from the original space colonists, with their grandchildren moving back down to Earth and buying the foreclosed homes from which the Black and brown locals have been evicted. Onyebuchi shows the process of colonization to us from both sides: How intrepid white colonists with augmentations to help them survive the environment see themselves as pioneering settlers, while their Black neighbors teach them how to fix up their irradiated homes and even to open the windows while they paint. These half-cybernetic colonists cannot survive with their unaugmented neighbors.
The staunch differences between the colonists and locals are further exemplified not only by the accompanying increased police presence but also the way white settlers wear air-purifying masks even in so-called “safe” areas, protecting themselves from the same cancer-causing air their BIPOC neighbors have been breathing for generations.
The horrors of “Goliath” are happening on the real world evening news, at least until the 24-hour cycle is over. The white colonists say that they’re “cleaning up” the neighborhoods and bringing resources with them, the biggest being air-purifying “Domes” that are presented as technologically advanced and life-saving, for those who can afford access. The name is tongue-in-cheek, considering that the United States currently has a structure in the Marshall Islands literally called the Runit Dome containing our very real radioactive waste. The compromised concrete has leaked harmful substances into the water and endangered the locals. Elsewhere, in Hawai‘i, the U.S. Navy has poisoned the water supply. And a generation of children in Flint, Michigan, are dealing with lead exposure and poisoning.
Like the tourists who travel during a pandemic to a forcibly annexed island to lie on the beach and make life difficult for indigenous Hawaiians, the white settlers in “Goliath” believe that they’re bringing valuable resources. They don’t consider how they’re then taking resources away from the locals or introducing over-policing. Young Black boys go from enjoying their neighborhoods to practicing running from the unfeeling, robotic police. At twelve years old, they learn how to electrocute the skin off their fingers to become untraceable “ghosts.” The details are nauseating in their believability.
In “Goliath,” I see the stories of so many Black Americans, centered in a dystopian sci-fi that focuses on “us”. Often, sci-fi will include Black and brown characters but not any of the historical struggles we have experienced. Onyebuchi lays it out clearly: Our grandparents and parents have experienced and passed on generational trauma. We are also still experiencing trauma, which will be passed on to our descendants, so long as white supremacy is given a space to flourish.
Onyebuchi pays homage to our family members who were overpoliced and unfairly locked up, to the Kentucky fields that our forebears tilled as sharecroppers or as enslaved people, the same history-laden fields our parents later played in as kids. He recognizes the communities of color who took the scraps of neighborhoods left behind in white flight and made them something beautiful to behold. He acknowledges our tenacity and strength, even while highlighting the unfairness of society.
As I write this review, Western Washington is under a stagnant air advisory and has been for several days. As someone who has had severe respiratory illness and lung surgery, I walk over to my air purifier which fills the room with white noise and makes the thick air bearable as I re-read sections of “Goliath.” The South King County valley, where many people of color have been displaced due to gentrification and astronomical housing prices, is experiencing the worst of the fog. I know far too many people who have had cancer in the past few years, including myself. I have a strong suspicion that Onyebuchi does too.
“Goliath” is a poignant book that sprawls from the historical moment in which we are currently living to the near-future implications of what will happen if we stay on this current trajectory. As Onyebuchi writes: “Almost two hundred years later, history don’t repeat itself, but it sure as hell rhymes.”
If you are interested in “Goliath,” you may also like:
• The 2021 documentary “Blackalachia” by Moses Sumney.
• The 1998 anime series “Cowboy Bebop” or its 2021 Netflix reboot.
• The 2018 album “Dirty Computer” by Janelle Monáe.
• The 2020 podcast “Nice White Parents” by Serial Productions.
• The 2021 “American Scandal” podcast episodes on the Attica Prison uprising, by Wondery Productions.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Feb. 2-8, 2022 issue.