SCI-FI dystopias of a ruined Earth are thick on the ground these days, filled with the wreckage of climate change: drowned continents, great extinctions and air that is no longer safe to breathe. In the more hopeful, people leave the planet in search of another world where they can start again, with lessons learned and a determination not to repeat the same mistakes.
In Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath, human nature is eternal. So, while the rich predictably leave for pristine space colonies, abandoning those who can’t afford to escape, there is money to be made from tourism to the ruins left behind. Some tourists find themselves captivated by the communities that have emerged, and decide to return to Earth. Gentrification ensues.
The premise is wry and au courant. In a lesser writer’s hands, it could lead to lazy and cynical caricatures, but Onyebuchi uses it only as a jumping off point into a deeper examination of the idea of home, and what we will do to get there.
Onyebuchi started out writing sci-fi for young adults before reaching a wider audience with the multi-award gobbling novella Riot Baby in 2020. He has a master’s degree in screenwriting, which is on vivid display in his hypnotic descriptions of Goliath’s two new human worlds.
We explore these through the eyes of several characters, including colony-dweller Jonathan, who looks out into star-spangled black space from a window in a sterile space station straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. On Earth, we meet Sydney, who watches a dandelion’s seeds get nibbled away by wind under a poisoned red sky.
“By detailing the two worlds, Onyebuchi makes it obvious why people start yearning for Earth”
The style is more than matched by the substance of the story, in which Onyebuchi takes his time to explore the main themes. The gentrification issue, for example, is treated not as an easy punchline but as a way into deeper questions about what we need.
When Jonathan travels from the colonies to Earth, he tours destroyed homes looking for one to fix up. Onyebuchi shows us what he starts with – a shell of a house filled with geological layers of detritus. Then, months later, Jonathan is accepted into the community, which allows him to connect to the lone cable still bringing electricity to the neighbourhood. His wonder and joy at something so ordinary as a working light switch is infectious, especially after the technological marvels he has been taking for granted in the colonies.
By detailing the contrasting textures of the two worlds, Onyebuchi makes it obvious why colony-dwellers start yearning for Earth. Home inspires such longing that people living in the clean, metallic colonies pay handsomely for individual bricks to be salvaged from demolished houses on Earth and sent into space. They fight on auction sites for tiny cacti.
Back on Earth, there are different tensions. Returning residents bring back things that Earth’s citizens were only too happy to see the back of, not least social inequality. Even in space, the richest live in the part of the space station with a view of the galaxies, while everyone else faces the unrecyclable detritus – including dead bodies – that surrounds the colonies in a ring.
What will the prodigal Jonathans bring back to Earth apart from their longing for home? And will the people they left behind be interested in anything they have to offer?
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