Don’t let the cover copy fool you. Goliath is not your average science fiction novel. Onyebuchi jumps through first, second, and third POV, from a traditional Western narrative structure to documentary footage to nonfiction journalism articles. Time is nonlinear here, with some stories happening in the past, others in the characters’ presents, and others in their futures. It is somehow simultaneously epic yet intimate in scope, with a large cast of characters spreading across several states and many years, most of whom are connected to each other by one man: Bishop.
In the not too distant future, white flight—triggered by a politicized plague and man-made environmental catastrophes—has decimated the United States. The wealthy (and mostly white) citizens abandoned earth, taking their tax dollars with them, to brand new Space Colonies while everyone else (mostly poor and BIPOC) were left to survive among the debris. Eventually, the Space Colonists get the disaster tourism itch. Some return to the ground to gentrify the very neighborhoods their ancestors abandoned, pushing out the descendants of those who were left behind. New England, with its now relatively temperate weather and clustering of resources and infrastructure, is the most stable region in a nation of instability. Out West people scrabble over a few resources while down South, white people have reestablished Black slavery.
Biblical references pepper the text. It’s been a long time since I last read the Bible (I was raised Seventh Day Adventist for the first two decades of my life) so I’m sure I missed at least a few. The two I want to pull at right now, though, are both part of the story of David. Most branches of Christianity teach David and Jonathan as if they were just bros (no homo), although some contemporary Bible readers interpret their story as romantic and sexual. Whether or not the Biblical versions of David and Jonathan were queer is not the point here; their relationship, whatever it was, was obviously deeper and more profound than the average friendship. In Onyebuchi’s novel, Jonathan and David are queer men in a fraught romantic and sexual relationship with each other. They meet in space under shared experiences of trauma. Later in their partnership, Jonathan returns to Earth, buys a rundown house in a rundown neighborhood, and begins to fix it up in anticipation of David’s arrival. He also starts an affair with another gentrifier, Eamonn.
Through the Biblical David, we also get Goliath. Here, we can think of Goliath on two levels. For several of the characters, Goliath is represented by real people in positions of great power. Prison commissioners, city comptrollers, slavers, and, from the perspective of the captured slaver, the law woman dragging him back to face an execution. We all love a story about an underdog standing up to an authority figure and fighting back against abuses of power. But what if we’re all David and the system is Goliath? When slavery is reinstituted, how are Black folks supposed to fight back against a tidal wave of white supremacy? When the air is killing people, how are the people being evicted from abandoned homes supposed to save the environment?
Fighting impossible battles and resisting impossible oppressions is something Black people have been doing since the first slave ship anchored off the coast of Africa. Our Goliath is the world, the system, the global economy. Our Goliath lives in our laws and in the hearts and minds of those who make, execute, and enforce them. Our Goliath is a living, breathing entity and an intangible force.
In some ways, Goliath reminds me of Angela Mi Young Hur’s devastatingly good 2021 speculative novel Folklorn. Content-wise, the books couldn’t be more different, but in terms of the way they made me feel, both while reading and afterward, they are very much alike. The two books are dense in plot and background and play with time, space, and knowledge in frighteningly clever ways. They’re emotionally heavy and intellectually layered to the point where multiple reads are required for full understanding. Neither are easy weekend reads by any means, and you’ll probably feel more like you just ran a marathon when you turn that last page rather than feel peaceful satisfaction. And like Folklorn, I had a hell of a time figuring out how to review Goliath because there is just so much on and off the page that no single article could ever hope to dig into everything that needs to be discussed.
Whatever Goliath is, however you interpret and experience it, it’s clear that Tochi Onyebuchi is one hell of a writer. This is a visceral and bracing text, as layered as an archaeological dig. Like Riot Baby, Onyebuchi’s dystopian science fiction story is less speculative and more prophetic. BIPOC have been walking the paths that lead to this future for a long time. But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless or bleak. Goliath is not a story about surrender but of resistance. We, the Davids of this world, may not win against the seemingly unstoppable forces, but we sure as hell are going to keep fighting.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).