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In 'Goliath,' only the rich and white can escape to space as the Earth collapses


Picture a not too distant future, one where humans leave this planet and move to live in space colonies - well, some humans. Only an affluent few are able to escape to the shiny new colonies, while those with less privilege are stuck on an increasingly hostile Earth, living with the consequences of climate change and struggling to survive. This is the world author Tochi Onyebuchi imagines in his new book, "Goliath." It's a haunting take on a future that is caused by events that feel all too real right now.

And Tochi Onyebuchi joins us now from his home in New Haven, Conn. Hey. Welcome to the program.

TOCHI ONYEBUCHI: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: So in "Goliath," there are some pretty clear divides on who gets to leave Earth and who has to stay. And I know we mentioned wealth, but we should just be super-clear here that it's Black and brown people who are left behind. Why was it so important to you to explore that disparity?

ONYEBUCHI: I really wanted to, you know, get at the intersection socioeconomically of a lot of these divides. But I also, I guess, more broadly wanted to get at - you know, the vast majority of stories set in space that I've read or that I'd seen on TV or in a film, you know, are particularly monochrome. You know, there's very much white people who are in the spaceships and on the - you know, terraforming Mars, that sort of thing. I asked myself, well, what happened to all the Black and brown people? Oh, wait, they got left behind on Earth. And so that was one of the - that was one of the initial sparks behind the book.

SUMMERS: So in the book, the mostly white occupants of these space colonies, they take some classes to learn about their privilege, and they end up being classes that don't really translate into much action. And I'm curious, is that any reflection on the conversations about racial justice that are happening right now in our world?

ONYEBUCHI: Short answer, yes. You know, the very first draft of this book, I think, was completed in 2015. You know, there was a little bit of that there - you know, that idea of white people who were cognizant of their privilege and who were cognizant of, you know, social and socioeconomic divides, that sort of thing. And then, you know, looking at the ways in which the events of the summer of 2020 sort of rippled out into all these different industries and professions, it was fascinating, albeit dispiriting to see all the ways in which people can say all the right things. Corporations on Twitter can say all the right things, and yet, you know, a year later, you know, summer of 2021, you know, you'd look around and you'd ask yourself what had changed. And more often than not, the answer would be nothing.

SUMMERS: On Earth, there is a group of laborers that you call stackers, and they send back parts of demolished homes that are used to build more units on the space colonies. Tell us about them.

ONYEBUCHI: Oh, man. So the idea for the stackers actually came from this Chicago Reader piece that I came across. It was originally published in 1999, I want to say, by Tori Marlan. And it was about the brick-stacking industry in Chicago. And I was really struck by the ways in which that activity implicated issues of race and class. And it just seems such an interesting way of tracing the topography of a city, particularly if, you know, you're engaging with images of destruction and rebuilding. You know, there you have an incredibly tangible manifestation of exactly that.

SUMMERS: And then there are also some characters - they live in space, but they have a yearning to go home. We learn about that story through the eyes of Jonathan, who is white, and looking for a fresh start on Earth. How is that yearning seen by the community that he returns to?

ONYEBUCHI: Oh, man. He's - you know, he's a gentrifier (laughter). They know immediately what his arrival portends. But at the same time, it's one of those things where you're not just looking at a person, you're looking at an economic force. You know, it's the other side of the frontier narrative. So many of those stories have centered, you know, the person going out west to start a new life for themselves and their family. But the other side of that is that everywhere that they went, there were already people living there.

SUMMERS: You've talked in the past about how anime has influenced your writing, and I would love to know how it inspired "Goliath."

ONYEBUCHI: Oh, my goodness (laughter). Always, always, always ask me about anime. The space colony that Jonathan and the others come from was actually modeled on the space colonies depicted in "Gundam Wing." A lot of how I view the melding of biology and technology is probably informed more than anything else by "Ghost In The Shell." Oh, my goodness. Every single book that I've written is in some way, shape or form informed by anime. You know, I'm a member of that original Toonami generation. So that was - you know, that was my diet. That was how I learned how to tell a story.

SUMMERS: The other influence I'd like to ask you about is your work in civil rights law. That just seems to be very present throughout this entire book.

ONYEBUCHI: That is the thing that got me into incarceration. You know, that period in law school was also when, you know, I woke up to a lot of things. I realized that a lot of instances of particularly racial oppression weren't just instances. They were systemic. I didn't understand systemic racism or structural oppression until I got to that place in my education. So I was a bit of a - I was a bit of a late bloomer.

I also - I mean, I was in law school, you know, during a very tumultuous period. During my final year of law school, you know, Michael Brown was killed. You know, we saw the sort of non-indictment of Darren Wilson and Eric Pantaleo (ph) for the killing of Eric Garner. And so while we're supposed to be studying for exams and learning about the majestic neutrality of the law, you know, we're having thrown in our face the fact of the law's capriciousness and the fact of so many of these instances of systemic racism sort of engaging in this sort of paroxysm of racial oppression. And that made an impression on me.

SUMMERS: You've said that the first draft of this book was finished in 2015, but the world that you have built in "Goliath" has such strong echoes of today's world. What do you want readers to take away from your book?

ONYEBUCHI: Oh, I think if there is any sort of message, I guess, with "Goliath," it's that sort of magic is still possible after the apocalypse. I don't know that the people that are in charge of our climate change policy, you know, might come across "Goliath." I hope they do. And so, you know, in that respect, I - you know, I don't know that there's any sort of prescriptive messaging. But really, it's a book about the places where people can locate their hope.

SUMMERS: That was author Tochi Onyebuchi. His new book, "Goliath, is out now. Thanks for being here.

ONYEBUCHI: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITEMOVES' "POLYPEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.