Goliath (2022) is a novel of four parts by the American writer Tochi Onyebuchi. Set on an Earth made barely habitable by climate change and pandemics, it introduces us to a society in which the wealthy and privileged—and almost entirely white—people of America (and, we assume, other nations) now live off-world in luxurious Space Colonies where the inhabitants can pursue rewarding lives free of the consequences of their ancestors’ lifestyles. On the surface, however, continue to live the poor, under-privileged—and mostly Black and Brown—men, women, and children who live an increasingly untenable existence which remains nonetheless culturally and personally vital.
The novel’s first part, “Summer,” introduces us to David and Jonathan, two wealthy-but-well-meaning beneficiaries of off-world luxury who decide to return to Earth. Their plan is to do no harm, but the novel soon begins to reveal how gentrification is a fraught, and most often harmful, process: we meet “stackers” like the ex-preacher Bishop and his ward, Bugs, whose job in part it is to demolish (and repurpose) the decaying housing in which families still live. In the novel’s second part, “Fall,” the reputedly and comparatively more stable society of New England in which Jonathan and David seek to settle is indeed shown to be decidedly more fragile than all that. We follow two characters—Sydney and Timeica—on a supply-run to two settlements that “weren’t towns so much as they were two conjoined forests with towns falling apart inside them,” and end with another character—Sydney’s lover, Linc—imagining a winter spent in “the warehouse they’d huddle in, the rusted garbage can whose burning refuse would provide their warmth."
The novel’s third part, “Winter,” takes the reader further south and west, away from the confines of New England towards ever more challenging milieu: frontier towns, arid dust bowls, pitiless prisons. Told in two strands, the narration here also begins further to undermine any sense of stability or authority, asking the reader to connect dots for themselves—even perhaps erroneously—to make sense of the dissolution. The novel’s final part, “Spring,” focuses ever more squarely on the toxicity—both literal and metaphorical—that is meted onto the stackers’ daily lives by a society that exhibits not just an absence of care for but an active malice towards them: “whatever was gonna come after,” Linc reflects, “whatever thing he was gonna do next, after he’d erased this place they’d built from the earth, that was part of the deal too."
Discussing Goliath in this special roundtable on reading the novel are Strange Horizons reviewers A. S. Lewis, Archita Mittra, Abigail Nussbaum, and Jonah Sutton-Morse. Strange Horizons Reviews Editor Dan Hartland chairs.
Dan Hartland: First, thanks to each of you for agreeing to take part in this special roundtable for the 2023 Strange Horizons Fund Drive. I’m especially glad you’ve agreed to read Goliath together, a book I think really does repay close readings—and which has proven since its publication to be a text richer than most.
In fact, I was at first stumped by what the appropriate initial prompt for discussion might be, because there seemed so much to say about, so many approaches to, this book.
That being the case, I wonder if we might start by asking ourselves what this book is about—what is its story? In their review of the novel for us last year, Catherine Rockwood argued, “No, David and Jonathan are not the main characters of this novel. That place is reserved for Goliath.” But it strikes me that even this is an argument, not a statement of fact. For me, the heart of the novel is in its “Winter” section; and the novel leaves room for further multitudes still.
Where did you start with this book? Where did you end? Who is its protagonist? In some ways, the book reads like an older SF novel, one with several pieces originally printed as stories overlapping, none quite crowding out the others. In other ways it’s a quintessential twenty-first-century text—multi-voiced, focused on communities and systems, unstable.
So. What story did this book tell you? Where did your focus wind up landing?
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Thanks for gathering us—I’m really looking forward to this.
I have, I think, an answer to what the book is “about,” and moreso to “where did your focus wind up landing,” but I’m not sure they’re particularly satisfying, so I’m looking forward to reading other answers to this.
My focus in Goliath wound up landing on the moments and edges outside the stories that the book tells. There’s a way that Goliath is straightforwardly a story about ecological collapse, capitalism scavenging on leftover fragments, and the destructive impulses of gentrification and racism that we can see in national US news stories every day. But it struck me that, while the book was aware of that story, and expected the reader to be able to follow it (and this is a book that I found hard to follow), my focus kept falling on the pieces outside that story. The impulse to scavenge the remnants of a city is less interesting than the people who do the basic manual work of hammering the bricks. The people who leave ecological collapse are less interesting than those who remain—and even among those who left, the most interesting are those at the margins who eventually return. The mechanics of living in climate collapse, and enduring the policing that comes with the intrusion of wealth, are acknowledged but less interesting than an adventure collecting wild horses, or a group of people playing Spades and talking trash.
I don’t really like saying that this novel is “about” the lives and details around the edge of the destructive forces that regularly lead my national headlines (and I realize that the “Winter” section that Dan puts at the heart of the book at least partly complicates my reading), but it is those lives and details that my focus landed on.
Abigail Nussbaum: I’d say that “what is the book about” and “what is its story” are two different questions. This is often the case, of course, but all the more so for Goliath because the characters in whom it’s truly interested are also in such stasis, mostly acted upon, and, by the novel’s end, only able to affect their world in extremely destructive ways. So the story is about two gentrifiers coming back to Earth and settling in New Haven, and causing terrible destruction even though they’ve promised each other that they’re among the good ones. But that is not what the book is about—note, for example, how David and Jonathan’s point of view is deliberately elided in the novel’s final segment. The last time we see inside either of their heads is right before they make the fateful decision (and we never get to see the rationalization that justifies it, only the trigger for it). We don’t learn their reaction to the aftermath, or what happens to them afterwards.
As for what the book is about, I would say that it’s a twist on Gibson’s “the future is here but not evenly distributed.” It’s a story about how there are always people who are left behind by the future, often in ways that can’t help but seem deliberate. And how, when those people try to stake their claim in the world—try to take that quintessentially SFnal step of building their world—the response is to come in and take what they’ve made without even acknowledging their right to it. The entire system is designed to disempower them.
The “Winter” segment strikes me as both crucial and ancillary—and this in a novel already prone to diffusing outward, to following different streams of stories in a way that doesn’t fully tie together. The prison segments provide key backstory and context to both the characters and situation in New Haven (while also furnishing another example of how what the underclass builds is automatically viewed as valueless), while the western-like segments with Lincoln’s mother and the neo-Confederate feel less essential, more like the novel filling in its world in ways that are fascinating but maybe not as crucial to the story.
In fact, I’d say one of the things I find really interesting about Goliath is how it keeps turning away from the central trunk of its story—which, as noted, is about how the clash between gentrifiers and locals leads to tragedy and to a destructive, perhaps ultimately futile, act of resistance—to give us deep background and ancillary information about its characters. None of this is pointless—it’s establishing, in fact, the deep trauma and history of repeated dispossession that informs the characters’ actions—but the choice to focus on this instead of the central, inciting event is an interesting one.
A. S. Lewis:I agree with Abigail that what the story is about and what the book is about are two very different things. As the first question can be answered by simply following the plot, I find the second question far more interesting.
As I read the book (and I also found parts confusing and hard to follow, Jonah), I could not help but think about the biblical implications of the title of Goliath, as well as other biblical references like David and Jonathan. At first, I assumed that these characters, more than others, would serve as the “hero” or ultimate protagonist against some sort of oppressive figure or entity. However, the further I read, the more I realized that the antagonist of the story is the system that fosters and perpetuates inequity and oppression. It is the very setting, the backdrop of the story—whether on the ruined Earth or in a new colony—that the characters are struggling against. The massive, seemingly omnipresent system is the book’s Goliath, but then who is the David of the story?
This puzzled me at first, but I came to see the larger cast of characters as a sort of amalgamated protagonist. Unlike the biblical David and Goliath story, here the giant is too big to be bested by an individual. It is a community that strikes out and rebels against the impossible force. It’s worth noting that the “goliath” fight is often perceived as an impossible victory, that some of the struggles endured are futile. But, for me, that is the genius of the narrative. Onyebuchi created a speculative future that is so intimately tied to the past and present that it presents as authentic in ways that feel impossible—because this story hasn’t happened … yet.
Archita Mittra: Yes, if we had to look for a protagonist in these pages, I feel it would be the setting itself, dystopian yet very near-future and all too plausible—a world wrecked by climate change, capitalism, gentrification, and racism, and which therefore reflects the reality that we the readers inhabit, as well as the unfair system that structures and sustains it. This isn’t a novel with linear plot and a Main Character with clear motivations who is beset by obstacles that benevolent narrative logic will ensure are overcome eventually or somehow. It is a book populated by characters who for the most part are acted upon, have to negotiate with power structures in very limited ways, and are ultimately bereft of poetic justice.
On the whole, then, Dan’s questions about story, plot, and protagonist made me think about how we as readers often pick up a book with certain narrative expectations—say, a main character whose emotional growth we can follow throughout the novel, or whose viewpoint we can use as a camera lens to navigate the fictional terrain—and I think that this book, quite early on, cautions us against such a move. As we plough through Goliath, we encounter several characters—David, Jonathan, Linc, Sydney, Mercedes, Bugs, Rodney, Bishop, Timeica—none of whom get the privilege to be the Main Character, yet their lives are delineated by tragedies, great and small, and presented to us with such a wealth of detail that it does feel like a deeply immersive experience.
So to go back to the original question, my focus ended up landing on these visceral details—the quiet moments, the metaphors, the sharp commentary—that are peppered generously throughout the text. In this regard, I feel Tochi Onyebuchi’s authorial choices make complete sense. Goliath has the illusion of being a mosaic novel for sure, but I see it more as a series of vignettes, dexterously and painstakingly sketched, and assembled with a very deliberate sense of chaos, to give a sense of how, in a world beset by systemic injustice, we cannot really have heroes but just people making whatever choices they can to survive. This in turn leaves us not with a clean story, threaded with narrative beats at regular intervals, but the similitude of real life itself where you don’t usually have neat endings or closure. As a novel that is so deeply invested in socio-political issues of the day, it was very refreshing and challenging to read, but also remarkably honest.
Abigail Nussbaum: Yeah, I would definitely like to add that I agree with everyone’s description of the book as challenging to follow, and I’m also assuming that’s deliberate. The number of chapters that start not just in medias res but in a location, and from a point of view, that are extremely unfamiliar, can only be a purposeful device. There are still questions I’m not sure I know the answer to—like, is Bugs the narrator in the prison sections in “Winter”? I think that’s what we’re meant to assume but it’s deliberately obscure, and the two characters don’t dovetail terribly well (Bugs seems younger and less fully-formed than the Winter narrator).
And I think that connects to the observation made by A. S. and Archita: that the Earth-based characters are less significant as individuals as for how they make up the whole that is Goliath. This makes me wonder if, on top of the biblical references, you’ve also got a deliberate reversal of something like the illustration in Hobbes’s Leviathan, sort of a comment on the way that the Enlightenment (of which science fiction is arguably an expression) tends to either ignore racialized people or take for granted their exploitation. (I could be stretching here; my knowledge of philosophy is basically nonexistent.)
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I know there’s a lot of productive thinking around unpicking the Enlightenment’s blindness towards race and oppressive systems (and Hobbes’s Leviathan in particular is making a very specific argument about human nature and what we should endure because of it, which I had a lot of problems with even before reading Black Marxism, which was my way into seeing some of those blind spots). I’m sure that looking at Goliath through the lens of “in what way is this book part of a genre that looks back towards that Enlightenment tradition, and in what ways is it engaging with some of those same critiques” could be really interesting, but I’m not sure whether I’m equipped to make a run at that.
There is one other thing I’d like to throw into the mix: in addition to the Biblical themes, there are also some real historical events reflected in the novel. I read “Blood in the Water” about the Attica prison riot not long ago, and it felt like the bits of Goliath chronicling a prison riot, and the ways the prisoners self-organized, were pretty directly drawn from that historical moment (though with a conclusion that was both different and also rhymed with the events of Attica). So, when Archita mentions how this is a novel of vignettes, I do find myself wondering where else this is a novel of real moments cast forward into a wrecked world. And then I start wondering how you end up with a book in which it’s both possible to look for very specific, small moments and also something like its big and unspecific story of David and Goliath, and see each of those as ways to look for themes in the book.
Dan Hartland: Let’s linger on this question of difficulty. I agree with what everyone has said about the question of “what” this book is about—that strictly speaking it has no single plot, that who it is about is as interesting as its what, that its real purpose is thematic rather than expository, but: all of you have mentioned that at one point or another the book sort of lost you. I agree with Abigail that this is deliberate—but to what end?
In The Idea of Difficulty in Literature (SUNY Press, 1991), Alan Purves tried to make his readers think about difficulty less as an innate quality of the text and more as an expression of the relationship between a particular text and a particular reader: “difficulty is an aspect of the individual’s estimate of the nature of the object and that individual’s estimate of her or his capacity to deal with the object,” he wrote on the book’s first page. I think this has special relevance to Goliath, a book that challenges the reader repeatedly—because to be otherwise would be to live on the space station and not on the ground.
In other words, perhaps Goliath wants us to experience difficulty because it wants us to admit ignorance? This links in with the Enlightenment riff, this conversation the novel is in with epistemology. This is just a hypothesis, though—I’d be interested in your thoughts. Which bits of the novel did you find most challenging, and why? Were there other parts that you found more familiar? It felt to me that Onyebuchi achieved a see-sawing balance of discomfort and … release? For me, the novel wasn’t always forbidding, and it wasn’t always yielding. But did your mileage vary?
Abigail Nussbaum: I think it’s worth articulating what we mean when we call Goliath difficult. It’s not that any individual chapter is a tough read. The prose isn’t dense or clotted—on the contrary, it’s very readable, and some chapters (especially the ones where one of the characters is telling a story to the reporter) have incredible conversational flow. It’s when you’re putting them together that the difficulty emerges. There’s no obvious timeline—it can be very difficult to guess which chapter occurs before which, but they’re definitely not arranged in linear order. Characters are mentioned in one chapter, then become a point of view character a hundred pages later, and you have to scramble to remember where you know them from. A lot of chapters start in the middle of the action, and between that and the missing timeline you’re often left feeling completely disoriented until you’re well into their action. It can come to feel as if you’re starting the story again and again, well into the body of the novel.
I think part of the project of the novel is to talk about “what came before.” When you’re watching a violent riot on your TV, activists will often exhort you to consider the context and history of the situation. And Goliath does this, but in a way that’s challenging. It isn’t just laying out the history of each character that ultimately explains how they came to this place and this choice; it’s trying to immerse you in that history. And that history isn’t linear or straightforward. It’s constantly happening—like the way Lincoln is haunted by his brother’s death, and the way subsequent deaths like Sydney’s and Bugs’s become tied up in his mind with that earlier trauma. It feels like a more experiential approach, something that will help you feel where the characters are coming from, why they’re making choices we might term irrational, rather than understand it intellectually.
A. S. Lewis: Again, I have to agree with Abigail’s assessment of the book’s “difficulty.” Reading it felt closer to a fantasy genre than the speculative fiction that it is, and, for me, that is where I found it to require a bit of work on behalf of the reader. I say this not because I dislike fantasy or find it hard to follow. Quite the contrary. Instead, what reminded me of fantasy was the swift introduction of a host of characters, narrating or leading their own chapters/sections. In an eight-hundred-page epic fantasy, this is not a problem as a reader has ample time to get acclimated to each character’s personality and situation. However, Goliath moves at a much faster pace in a much shorter space, leaving far less time to initially “connect” with each character and what their particular circumstance and motivations are. This becomes less of an issue as one continues reading, but at the start it was quite challenging for this reader.
Like Abigail, I found the prose very readable and flowy (yes, perhaps not a word, but it fits). I was particularly enamored with the dialogue. Much of it was so astonishingly familiar in its conversational tone that I was reminded of late night conversations with my own friends. It was accurate to the point of near-creepiness, but I loved every line of it!
For me, the other main challenge in reading Goliath is the timeline, as others have mentioned. I’ve never been overly fond of non-linear narratives, and this one is particularly erratic as it moves through time and space. That, in and of itself, is not a problem per se, but the transitions were often very abrupt and, thus, disorienting—at least for me. Whether this was done to elicit that specific type of disorientation, I don’t know. It would not be surprising if it were written this way for this specific reader response, but then the question becomes to what end?
Archita Mittra: I remember reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics back when I was an undergraduate, and there was this bit about how in comics, the reader fills the space between the panels and makes meaning/closure out of it. The comic creator doesn’t have to depict everything in the panels—just enough for us to connect the dots. I think the issue with Goliath is that there isn’t enough to fill the dots per se and perhaps that’s intentional, to evoke the fragmentary nature of the different, interconnected realities that the characters inhabit.
I agree with Abigail’s comments about the book’s difficulty. Yes, the text is quite lucid and readable, each paragraph leads onto another in a way that’s easy to follow, but as Abigail pointed out, it’s when you’re seeing it as a whole that the “difficulty” emerges. But the question of difficulty can also be assessed in other ways. A text doesn’t owe accessibility to the reader—not everything has to be spelled out, even if spelling everything out is the popular, favored form, these days. I’m thinking of how mainstream superhero movies (cough cough Marvel) rely on very formulaic story-telling and black-and-white politics, to make everything idk comfortable(?), accessible(?), and fundamentally passive(?) to the viewer. And I think a lot of successful commercial fiction does something similar, such as often being marketed purely on the basis of the tropes particular novels contain, so that readers know exactly what to expect and how to expect it. Even certain epic fantasy novels (following on what A. S. and Jonah have said) are accompanied by a cast of characters, glossaries, and the occasional summary—all effective forms of signposting to make the reading experience easier. And while that might make for comfortable media, it does take away the thrill of discovering something new, of doing the difficult but rewarding work of meaning-making ourselves. Onyebuchi goes deeply against the grain while writing Goliath and I think that’s great.
And the final question of difficulty, I think, might rest a bit on the reader’s own proximity to the novel’s realities. Capitalism, gentrification … all the themes in the novel impact our day-to-day experiences to varying extents. Based on whatever privileges we have, we negotiate with them in different ways.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I generally agree with most of what everyone has said. And it’s probably worth saying something more in a forum like this, so a qualification and a few additional connections.
First, I think it’s right that Goliath shares with epic fantasy a large number of characters, sometimes added in ways that don’t initially make it clear why a particular character matters. But I think that in epic fantasy there’s usually a generic assumption that events will tumble to A Conclusion, and that the various characters will be Important Instruments of that conclusion—so that, as time goes on, the strands will come together. Goliath seemed to me to reject this premise—while it ends, that ending is not a grand conclusion, and while most of the characters are involved in events in various ways, they aren’t necessarily building towards some common purpose.
Which actually brings me back a bit to difficulty and to Dan’s quote about the nature of the object and my capacity to deal with it. It’s facile but somewhat correct that when I was just reading Goliath because I enjoyed it and (at Abigail’s suggestion) thought it would be interesting to read against Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden, my biggest difficulty with the novel was that I read much of the last section, with plenty of words ending in a hard “r,” on a flight home from a work trip, and I worried my seat mate might look over my shoulder. At that time, I was reading Goliath as a story of individuals enacting joy and resistance and trauma, and repeatedly experiencing trauma because of near-future events based on recent historic precedent and events. That the characters were connected was clear, but I didn’t feel that missing many of the specific details of their connections affected my capacity to enjoy it.
Now, of course, I’m sharing a discussion with all of you, and so when Abigail mentions that Lincoln is haunted by his brother’s death and I vaguely remember a couple scenes with dead-or-remembered brothers, but not the details, I begin to doubt my own capacity, and so the book becomes more difficult.
Which brings me back to the disorientation we’ve all in one way or another mentioned, and I guess I find myself wondering whether the “difficulty” of the book—which, based on Dan’s definition and my own confession, may be “difficulty” or may just be “many layers of connection, with few indicators of context when it changes” or mostly my own sense of being inadequate to this group—matters. As A. S. and Abigail have said, the prose isn’t a hard read, and I agree with A. S. that the dialog is a particular strength. I think also that we have all landed on similar themes and techniques used to evoke and achieve those themes. I am worried about saying “the specificities of the individual stories that often passed by me aren’t essential to understanding this book,” but the specificities that I missed while enjoying the dialog and the individual scenes and moments definitely didn’t prevent me from enjoying Goliath, and thinking a lot about it.
Maybe Abigail’s point about experience is part of the answer to A. S.’s question about why these disorienting shifts, and also partly squares the circle of my ability to simultaneously find this book easy and challenging, depending on who I’m talking with and whether making sense of all the different layered stories seems necessary.
Dan Hartland: The question of “difficulty” is, well, a difficult one. I think that Archita is right to bring out the question of positionality as central to how this novel’s relationship with difficulty works. I think Goliath is trying to locate us in the novel by reference to which parts of it bring us up short. (I mean, come on: early on in the novel, one character is described as “a stranger in a strange land”!) For Jonah, discomfort came in those words ending with the hard “r,” but not necessarily in its intertextuality; for A. S., the way the novel plays with chronology proved challenging, but not the ways in which its characters speak with each other. I think that, when Archita suggests that the novel is seeking the grain and then going against it wherever it can, she really is onto something.
But A. S. surely gets to the heart of all this when asking “to what end?” If it’s not easy always to engage with and then describe our personal experiences of Goliath’s testing of us (and Abigail is right that a lot of that is about how it forces us to confront a hard history, partly fictional and partly all too real), it is at least something we can own. But, once we have located ourselves in the novel and its future history—or, maybe, been located by the book, and by Onyebuchi—I wonder where we, and it, might go from there? “Everyone who lives in a neighborhood belongs to it,” we read at one point. “You can’t opt out. Not unless you leave.” Perhaps the novel is about how people can possibly live together (if they can at all)? But at another point, we read, “This is what it’s like to die”—so perhaps Goliath is just about inevitable dissolution? On yet another hand, when we’re told that “People had gutted this thing … and [yet] it was a still a thing that could inspire awe,” does the novel mean us to feel hope … or sadness?
So: to what end is all this discombobulation being put? Disorientation—disassociation—is a common SFFnal effect. If we are meant to experience this novel as difficult, to what purpose is it tending in this particular piece of SFF? Does Onyebuchi have a message amid the mist, and if so … what might it be?
Jonah Sutton-Morse: It seems to me that the point of Goliath is that it’s what it is, and not what it could be. I’m reminded of Abigail pointing out initially that this is a book that keeps turning away from the trunk of the story—it’s a novel of a near-future with space habitats, a civil war and ethno-states, another global pandemic and ecological collapse, but it’s interested in a few laborers being pushed out of the life they’ve made by a wave of gentrification. The things that make it SF are almost incidental to the story, and the “difficulty” we’ve been circling around is bringing coherence to the entire story and history that the book lets us see.
But the fact that we’re interested in a grand coherent narrative of the future that Goliath lays out doesn’t mean that’s what the book owes us (getting back to that “going against the grain”). I’m reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates getting asked over and over again about hope, and refusing to try to perform that, and instead talking about what he can see and know about the past and the present. I think those “messages in the mist” have been present at various times—the stories of rockets and robots promising a future of technological solutions, or dystopias that carry with them some level of either despair or warning. More recently there seems to be a hunger in the SFF zeitgeist for hope, and for comfort, and for books that can point us past the rule of capitalism (to paraphrase a sage, as unquestionable as the divine right of kings once was); and it seems to me that Goliath is resolutely uninterested in this kind of message. It’s a plausible extrapolation of what could be based on what has happened, but where I think The Handmaid’s Tale (which could be described in the same way) is interested in making the reader engage with the horror of the world, Goliath instead asks us to care about these characters. The forces that pushed them to New Haven, or that are pushing them out, are relevant, but the focus of the story is these characters, their relationships, their joys and fears. It isn’t “coherent” or “hopeful” or “defiant” or “despairing.” It’s a book that says, “Stop and look and care about the people that are rarely made the focus, and care about them as people and not as victims or heroes, or agents of transformation”.
That seems to me to be rare, difficult, important, and sufficient.
Abigail Nussbaum: I had the exact same thought about Coates and the demand that he perform optimism after reading the book, Jonah. Which makes me uncomfortable, because I also came away from Goliath disturbed by its refusal to imagine change and forward motion for its characters. I think one potential difference is that Coates was describing what’s happening now, whereas Onyebuchi is imagining the future. And what he’s saying in that imagining is “it’s just going to be like this, forever.” This is exacerbated by how much of what happens in the book feels like direct lifts from things that are happening today (or, in the case of the “Winter” segment, things that happened in the past). So the future it’s describing is not just hopeless; it’s hopeless in precisely the ways that we see in the present.
All this leaves me feeling very troubled by my own reaction to the book. Because on the one hand, I absolutely don’t have the right to demand that Onyebuchi perform optimism for me, much less come up with solutions to entrenched problems like systemic racism and inequality (something that Coates was confronted with a lot, as if the fact that he’d accurately described the world made it his responsibility to fix it). But on the other hand, I’m really bothered by a science fiction novel whose attitude is so antithetical to the idea of change. Part of the point of the Le Guin quote Jonah mentions is that it’s the role of science fiction to imagine how things might be different, so Goliath’s refusal to do this bothers me. But again, saying that feels like me demanding that Onyebuchi soothe my feelings, which he’s under no obligation to do. As Jonah points out, and as Coates did, he is pointing to the problem, and that’s important in itself.
(A potentially relevant data point is that I listened to an LARB podcast interview with Onyebuchi after reading the book, and the way he talked about it was much less despairing than we have been. That could be because a person is more complicated than a novel, or it could be that he sees the book as more hopeful than we do.)
Archita Mittra: I think Goliath functions both as a cautionary tale (for our collective future) as well as an exposition of certain (present) realities for a lot of marginalized folks—who are living in war zones, or areas directly impacted by climate change, or simply being submerged in the ever-increasing landfill of unjust systems. So, naturally, Goliath isn’t concerned with an affirming message along the lines of “oh, the future is doomed if we don’t act now to save it,” but something more along the lines of, “well, this is the world that we live in and have been living in for quite some time, even if some can try to dial down the harshness, or have privileges that let them turn a blind eye.” I personally think that the Prison bits in the third section, “Winter,” (which are set in the past) particularly heighten this—that these systemic inequalities have existed for a long time, and continue to exist.
In some respects, the book reminds me of Samit Basu’s excellent near-future novel, The City Inside, which is set in a futuristic-but-all-too-plausible Delhi, similarly showcases how capitalism and other power systems, while affecting everyone, disproportionately affect certain sections of society, and focuses on the youth who are tasked with shouldering all the world’s burdens and doing the right thing—be it by actively joining the resistance, or simply surviving. And, especially looking at certain histories, the very act of surviving is an act of resistance. There’s a line in the book that’s often quoted which goes, “They’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice,” and this aptly summarizes the multiple apocalypses simultaneously plaguing different communities. I think it is equally applicable to our forlorn characters in Goliath, most of whom are just trying to live and find moments of meaning/joy/fulfillment in a world that’s already rigged against them.
And so, Goliath cannot offer us hope, because perhaps to be hopeful would act as a self-soothing balm for our conscience and shirk off our responsibilities. But more than that, perhaps the novel is trying to tell us that imagining hopepunk futures and happy endings is all well and good, but imagination alone is not enough to save our dystopian realities.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I’m really interested in how different our reactions are, because I wouldn’t describe Goliath as hopeless at all.
I think we agree that Goliath is bringing forward the people and problems of our time (it is doing the “SF is always about the present” much more straightforwardly than many other books), and also that, in bringing forward the people and problems of the present, it is not presenting a theory of change.
I’m not sure if these contrasts (not the specific books, but more the “how is this near-future book doing different things than other near-future SF”) are all contrasts we’d both agree on, but: certainly to me this isn’t Kim Stanley Robinson trying to sketch a future where we survive, or something post-apocalyptic. (I was going to reference Canticle for Leibowitz here, so I guess my recent post-apocalypse reading isn’t very broad. But Goliath is post-apocalypse, even if that isn’t the point of the novel, and this reminds me that, in various ways, various places and communities in our present world are also post-apocalypse.) Goliath isn’t even following Butler’s Parable novels in seeing the present and coming trends clearly and trying to find and show a change to the tracks laid down.
Goliath isn’t interested in whether we’re locked into the forces that lead there in a way that could be despairing. Instead, it is focused on people at that moment, and specifically people who are generally ignored, and saying, “Pay attention to them. Look at their joys and hopes and fears. Look at the ways they make community, and the ways it can be broken. Focus on these people who always get ignored.”
I didn’t read that as hopeless, although I do think it’s clear-eyed about what often happens to people in those communities. And I do think that Goliath is specifically not performing optimism. I don’t find hope in Goliath, but I also don’t find despair. I find joy and sadness, lots of small interpersonal interactions, and a very fragile community.
Archita Mittra: While I agree with both Jonah and Abigail that the book doesn’t present a “theory of change” and doesn’t owe the reader all the solutions to the world’s problems, Onyebuchi is trying something different, in the sense that he is asking the reader to simply engage with these characters and listen to their vignette-y stories; to reiterate what Jonah said, “to care about them as people and not as victims or heroes, or agents of transformation.” And, again, with the way in which the characters in the book are represented (as Jonah puts it, “focused on people at that moment, and specifically people who are generally ignored”), I think the author is trying to highlight that this burden of saving/preserving the world shouldn’t entirely rest on its characters’ shoulders. In this age of neo-colonization and corporate multinational capitalism that allows for injustice to thrive on an enormous and almost unparalleled scale, their efforts should not be trivialized their efforts of course, but they should be compared to the vast amount of systemic damage routinely inflicted on our planet and its many peoples. To perform optimism in the face of this can sometimes feel disingenuous and either dismissing or erasing of certain lived realities and histories.
The conversational tone in each chapter, especially the first-person accounts we get later and in which we aren’t quite sure who is speaking, all add up to this: that each character is a storyteller, waiting to be heard. This riffs on the idea of the author as this master storyteller who is also a historian and a chronicler, using the medium of fiction and not fact to record these emotional truths between peoples. It’s interesting to think about the figure of the storyteller in post-apocalyptic fiction, such as how, in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, several survivors band together to form a troupe performing stories and plays, and also cling onto the vestiges of art, such as torn pages of a graphic novel, to feel a connection to their past and to their humanity. Goliath’s character-focusedness, then, is reminding us that this is what we have—our relationships with each other and our communities are what sustains us. The novel isn’t asking us to rationalize on the injustices that besiege its characters, but to simply connect with them and understand what they are going through—and perhaps in that empathy, we may find some semblances of hope.
So, to go back to Dan’s original question, the book, for me, was definitely more “sadness” than “hope”—a communal act of sharing grief and empathy, where the feelings matter more than the logical sequence of events that led to them.
A. S. Lewis: Whereas I had not really considered Goliath in terms of either sadness or hope. That said, I have been giving the first half of Dan’s original question—if we are meant to experience this novel as difficult, what is the purpose—some serious thought. Considering how well Onyebuchi renders this very different yet so easily foreseeable and understandable world, it seems unlikely that the different difficulties we have identified can be wholly unintentional. Assuming this intentionality, then, begs for a purpose or motivation behind such an act. While Onyebuchi is the only person who can perhaps answer this truly, I wonder if it is to place the reader in the uncomfortable footwear of a POC in his world—by mimicking the discomfort of a POC in our world.
We have described how relatable and real this speculative world is, but have also pointed out how disorienting it can be for the reader to place his, her, or themselves within it. We have also touched on the unclear protagonist/antagonist situation because of the large cast of characters, and the setting serving as both a character and an antagonistic force. Lastly, we have mentioned our sometimes frustration at not being able to quite “pin down” specific or direct answers to questions that, for many other SF novels, are simple to identify. Taking all these aspects into a consideration of a much larger reader experience, I cannot help but notice that it reveals a reflection of the experience associated with marginalized people, particularly marginalized POCs in America.
For a POC, questions of identity, of finding one’s place in the world—both past and present—is a constant struggle. In fact, this struggle could be construed as a difficulty that exists outside of linear time, as it is the constant lack of knowledgeable roots and the constant defense of a future that is dealt with daily in the present. Additionally, for POC and marginalized groups, the world and its structures are both a living entity and an antagonistic one. All of these issues lead to an interminable frustration to which there are no easy solutions, resolutions, or even explanations.
Though this theory—argument?—is very abstract and detached from specific craft, the more thought I gave it the more there appeared to be an alignment between the experiences of the reader and experiences within a POC body. I may be stretching based on my experiences, but I can’t help but wonder if Onyebuchi was attempting to create something that operated along these lines, and even if he didn’t, the fact that it can do so is remarkable.
Abigail Nussbaum: That’s a very good point. In fact, maybe what we’ve been describing as the book’s difficulty are actually the symptoms of PTSD—difficulty with sequencing and telling past and present apart, feeling drawn into memories, hyperfocus on specific details, uncontrollable emotions. I’m reminded of Donald Glover observing that the characters in Atlanta were all suffering from PTSD due to living in white supremacist America, and it strikes me as very plausible that the characters in Goliath are in a similar state.
Dan Hartland: I really appreciate how careful but also honest we’re being here. Chief among our breakthroughs so far might I think be this observation of A. S.’s that Goliath is seeking to achieve an alignment between the reader and the POC body: when Jonah observes that the novel chooses to focus on people in a moment, and asks us to dwell on that, or Archita makes what is for me a key argument about this novel—that its radicalism is in its insistence on empathy—they are both, I think, orbiting this idea that the novel is creating ways for us to cross gulfs. Science fiction creates worlds, but worlds are dependent—or perhaps shaped—by the people in them, the people allowed to be in them … and this means that science fiction can only build particular types of world until it finds ways of forging better connections between reader and read. For all its self-regard as a literature of ideas, science fiction has not always done this terribly well, to its cost.
But I think this also brings us to Abigail’s problem with this particular novel: that its generic expression feels somehow off. It’s “a science fiction novel whose attitude is so antithetical to the idea of change.” Why is Goliath even written as science fiction? If it’s an empathetic project, why could it not be a piece of literary fiction set in the present day? Or why not a fantasy, shorn of all the need to invent a future history? Heck, it more or less turns into a western at one point—why not commit to that mode? The science fictional element must have been selected for a reason, and I don’t think Abigail is wrong to pause over—be troubled by—this choice and how it might be destabilised by, or in turn destabilise, the novel’s project.
That said, I might turn to Darko Suvin, who famously characterised SF as the literature uniquely equipped to “estrange the author’s and reader’s own empirical environment” (in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction ). Is this not what Goliath is doing—estranging our understanding of race and racial politics, of ourselves, to force us to think more clearly and expansively about people and life experience? In this, you might even want to argue that the novel is science fictional in intent rather than content (though surely this would be to take it too far, given this is a book with a space station in it).
So … can we sit with the novel as science fiction for a bit? It offers us both spaceships and machines that suck up houses, and post-plenty horses and dust bowl migrants. Obviously, and as Abigail has already said, to some extent Goliath is simply another iteration of the unevenly distributed future, which has come to be the default mode of a lot of contemporary SF. Does it do anything new with its generic elements? Or are they here mostly as a means of delivering its effect of transposition into the POC experience, of transliteration of structural racism? How central is SF to the novel’s success?
Abigail Nussbaum: Well, on the most trivial level, Goliath is science fiction because Onyebuchi is a science fiction writer. That’s the idiom he works within and is comfortable with. (And it’s the part of the publishing industry where he has relationships and can pitch a novel to a receptive audience who know him and what he’s capable of, as opposed to starting on the ground floor with a mainstream publisher.)
But I also wonder if the SFnal angle isn’t necessary for a book like Goliath to get published, get read, and get attention. If it had just been a naturalistic novel about gentrification and police brutality, would it have been considered as publishable? Would readers (and especially white readers) have been attracted to it, or would it have been dismissed as too challenging and bleak? Actually, this is a fate that I think it has suffered from anyway—I can think of no other explanation for its absence from, for example, the Nebula shortlist.
Indeed, I’m more than a little saddened by how little awards attention this novel has received (I guess we don’t yet know if it’s going to be nominated for the Hugo, but I’m not holding my breath). Goliath seems to me like one of the major genre novels of last year—however you define that genre—and I don’t think that has been appropriately recognized. It’s hard not to feel that this is down to readers finding the book too challenging, or too depressing, or maybe not even picking it up because it was about race.
I’m thinking of the way The Underground Railroad needed to couch its story in fantastical terms, not so much in order to soothe readers, as to give them a hook and point of interest, whereas a straight depiction of slavery and escape from it might have struggled to attract an audience.
Archita Mittra: Which I think brings us back to Dan’s next question of, why SF? I agree with Abigail’s doubts about the novel being as publishable if it was written in a naturalistic form. I personally think that, had Onyebuchi opted for a literary fiction form, or journalistic/academic non-fiction, the story would still work, but the readership would be (comparatively) different. I mean, this is just my experience (and I might be wrong), but I think the other two forms could attract a possibly niche and “posh” (?) audience, and it may not have been seen as “accessible” (?) in the way a genre fiction novel is marketed to be—so the conversations around it could be tantamount to the very “seminar on white privilege” that the book scoffs at, instead of being more diverse.
Again given the choice of publisher, the book is possibly aimed at an American readership, including both white and POC reader. I am fairly sure I’d never find a physical copy of this book in an Indian bookstore, and I actually checked the Amazon prices of the hardcover/paperback in Indian currency—they are priced similarly and too high, charge a delivery fee, and indicate almost a month-long delivery date, so not exactly accessible/affordable for SFF fans here, unless they opt for the Kindle ecopy. But none of this is the author’s fault. Rather, it is the way western publishing in the English language decides who to market what books to, and how publishing rights and editions are distributed across countries, I suppose. So even if the core themes resonate with people from all over the world, the central concerns of the book are aimed at the inequalities manifest in American society in particular. I think the SF tag makes the novel more accessible, and while it may not be doing anything new with generic elements, it utilizes it for the translation into the POC experience in a way that feels immersive and real, on a very raw and visceral level.
Abigail Nussbaum: I think Dan’s question has two meanings. There’s “why is Goliath science fiction” in the sense of why Onyebuchi chose to write it that way (a question that, ultimately, only he can answer), and “why is Goliath science fiction” in the sense of why we read it that way. Which is another way of asking, “is this novel science fictional enough?” Is it more than just trivially SFnal—in the sense that it occurs in the future and features space stations and autonomous police drones—or is it engaging with the core of what we think of as the genre? Is it, ultimately, doing anything SFnal?
As I’ve said already, what I struggle with, when it comes to that question, is the absence of the idea of change from the novel. The issue isn’t so much that things remain bad—some of the most canonical works of SF dystopia, including most obviously 1984, do not offer their readers a single glimmer of hope or optimism—as that it feels as if they’re bad in exactly the ways we already recognize from reality. Though having said that, that’s a reaction that is rooted at least in part in where Onyebuchi chooses to direct his gaze. Outside New Haven, there are tremendous changes happening in this world that relate directly to its core theme of race and inequality. The dissolution of America and resurgence of slavery in some of the resulting states would, in another novel, have been the point of the whole exercise. Here, they’re an aside—and it’s honestly a bit weird that Lincoln emerges from that conflict but is introduced to us in such a mundane context, as if a veteran of a space war came to town and took a job as a supermarket teller.
Ultimately, this feels part and parcel of what the novel is trying to accomplish. I keep thinking back to the opening chapter, where Lincoln and his crew use a miniature black hole to tear down a house, the most fantastical of technologies being used to maintain an unequal social order that offers no hope of change in the future. So I guess the question isn’t “is Goliath science fiction” so much as what is it saying *about* science fiction, and about the people who aren’t included in it.
Archita Mittra: And also with the current discussions about Black Mirror: the dark side of technology, climate change, dystopian/near-future fiction, etc. etc. SF provides the easiest medium in which to situate the novel, since it is already uniquely pre-occupied with questions of the future, and takes the conversation about how technology that is often envisaged as a way to improve people’s lives ends up being weaponized to control the lives of the poor and marginalized, away from ivory-towered academics to all sorts of people, including those who might go, “Ooh, shiny dystopian sci-fi novel, let’s check it out!”—often those whose lived experiences are similar to the characters depicted in the book.
For example: I totally agree with A. S.’s view that Goliath tries to align itself with the discomfort of the POC experience, as well as Abigail’s comment that the characters’ possible PTSD accounts for the stylistic choices in the way the author presents the narrative. In fact, the PTSD comments got me thinking about how the underlying causes of so many mental health conditions are so often inextricably linked to the power structures and the system of life it engenders, and where, while medication and therapy can help manage certain symptoms, it may not be enough to address the structural causes that result in so many people living in constant and continued distress. This way-of-life—in which one has to simply accept and live with trauma and other mental health issues (which for the characters in Goliath, as well as in real life, remain undiagnosed and untreated), and do so in circumstances and situations that are far from ideal—is a drastically different experience from that of a privileged, white American with easy access to healthcare, who is perhaps not likely to comprehend survival in such circumstances.
Hence the book’s central move towards empathy and fostering connection. There’s a line some way into the novel: “Indeed, the only people who did not seem to be shocked by the riots were the residents of color in the city that burned around them.” This succinctly encapsulates the sheer scale of violence that is normalized in the lived experience of POC. And earlier on, I think there’s a conversation between David and Jonathan that a “seminar on white privilege” is just an echo-chamber of whites talking about their privileges, each of whom and despite their self-introspection have really no clue of how the “other people” live—and are thus completely disconnected.
A. S. Lewis: I think the way that Abigail splits the question of “why is Goliath science fiction” is the way that I would respond to Dan’s question, with my focus resting firmly on the second interpretation in the sense of how the book is read/received. Let me preface this by saying I love science fiction as a genre. Literally, I can’t get enough of it. I’ll watch it, read it, or listen to it, taking it in any way I can get it. That said, I never read Goliath as “science fiction,” and I did not know until the previous responses that Onyebuchi offered it as such. In my readings, I treated it as speculative fiction, and while the difference between these sister genres is not grand, I think as speculative fiction it would have been acceptable to the publishing gatekeepers and still accessible to its readers.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: For myself, Dan’s question of considering the novel as science fiction drove me back to my bookshelf, and specifically to André Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction. Honestly, the entire book seems applicable to Goliath, but much as I’d like to just push it on everyone, I’ll settle for rehearsing a strand of Dr. Carrington’s argument and applying it to a particular scene in Goliath.
Carrington’s book is “about how placing Blackness at the center of discussions about speculative fiction augments our understanding of what the genre might be and what it might do.” To achieve this, Carrington begins with a conception of “The Whiteness of Science Fiction,” which “names both the overrepresentation of White people among the ranks of SF authors and the overrepresentation of White people’s experiences within SF texts … White people, in the aggregate, find representations of themselves in the genre to be much the same as they are elsewhere in culture: normative, benign, and frequent.” Establishing the Whiteness of the genre, Carrington points out that the Black experience is inherently a source of alienation, and borrows from Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Carrington’s further reparative reading of the genre is very much worth reading in full. In particular, Carrington reads an early-nineties Black-owned comic (“Icon”, published by Milestone Media), which features multiple superheroic characters including one fifteen-year-old girl in the inner city who gets pregnant and considers an abortion, and analyzes how the comic uses various techniques to bring together the normal and the abnormal. “[B]ut what normative system of representation has ‘Icon’ broken with: representing superheroes or representing teen pregnancy?” (Specifically, both Carrington and the comic book authors maintain that the run is solidly within the superhero genre, even as it’s also representing more social realism than often appears in the genre).
A. S. Lewis:Jonah has now made me eager to read Carrington’s Speculative Blackness.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes! With the notion of the Whiteness of Science Fiction, the alienation and estrangement that inherently comes along with Black representation in such a genre, and the sense that one way in which centering Blackness in a genre novel might incorporate a similar feeling of estrangement is by bringing in elements of social realism that are more associated with the Black experience, I opened Goliath almost at random, and, on page seventy-two, just before the end of Part I, I found Jonathan about to turn on the lights in his house. Bishop, of course, did the installation. One onlooker quips that “it ain’t home till you can turn the lights off.” And someone corrected the first person by saying “on,” but that first woman stood her ground.
Jonathan brings up rubber gloves woefully inadequate to the task of insulating himself against any accidental discharge, and surveys the electrical box: “It looked, in ways, like a beat-up braincase … The box held the house’s nervous system, its neural pathways, the foundation on which they would attach the the various accoutrements that would sustain their living here.” Eventually, the power is connected, the light switches work, and Jonathan and his companion run around frantically turning the lights off and on in glee. A few pages later, Lincoln and Sydney come back from a date and see the two white men standing outside their now-lit house “all he could think of were the air masks the two had been wearing.” And as they fall asleep together, Lincoln realizes Sydney is trying to comfort him: “He saw those aliens and was terrified, and she had known it.”
I find it really hard to get excited about questions of genre boundaries, but certainly whether the question is one of estrangement, or of the various trinkets and gadgets of miniature black holes and space stations, or the realities of the publishing industry, Goliath is solidly science-fictional. Following Carrington, I find it interesting how much this book is asking me, a White dude in America in 2023, “How does it feel to be a problem?” In Goliath, the representation that is “normative, benign, and frequent” is the group that can sit down at a Spades table and understand that “you can overbid, underbid, cut your partner. But understand this: not taking the pill is an accident. Burning your house down because you left the hot plate on is an accident. Cutting your partner? That’s grounds for an ass-whooping.” This quintessentially Black American card game is the normative representation in Goliath. The (White) outsider looking in, even with benign intent, is the dangerous alien. “You told them about us.” Of course Goliath is science-fiction. What’s interesting is that the normal humans are the Black Americans. The invading aliens, who in another story by a White author would often be actual aliens standing in for the White author’s fear that conquest and colonialism will be done unto us as we have historically done unto others, are not aliens but are just White people once again bringing their Whiteness into a space and causing displacement and trauma. Sufficiently advanced technology lines up with inadequate public infrastructure to show us many opportunities for that unevenly distributed future (light switches that can be reliably turned on and off are literally a sign of alien invasion), and situations like a Spades game or police brutality against a few kids on bikes that would be Special Messages amid the Whiteness of science fiction are just the normative system of representation.
A. S. Lewis:In my mind, science fiction, at its heart, presents stories of both possible and implausible futures wherein the differences between the future presented and the reality of the reader are integral to the development and structure of the narrative. To return to my alternative genre, speculative fiction, on the other hand, presents stories of both possible and implausible futures (with a tendency towards the plausible)—but the narrative is not dependent on differences between the reader’s reality and the reality found between the covers of the book. While Goliath inarguably contains space travel and colonization along with fantastic technologies and a substantial change in physical landscape, to my mind, nothing within the narrative itself necessarily requires these changes to convey the thematic aims of the story. To put it more bluntly, Goliath presents structural racism with a change of scenery, but it is the racism that is key, not the setting.
While it’s true many might argue that speculative fiction is the “what if” of fiction writing, I find that definition to be far too limiting. After all, both science fiction and fantasy could be described as such. I think that the speculation, therefore, is not in the future but in the intent to offer and present truth in the distant future to make it more palatable to the resistant. Okorafor’s Lagoon, for example, is for better or worse a story with undeniably science fiction elements—aliens land in Nigeria. However, the story is about the people and the city; the use of space invaders is simply a tool to address environmental issues and to redirect negative narratives about the country and its people. Archita mentioned the popular series Black Mirror, which does the same thing, in that its episodes highlight social issues and fears utilizing futuristic technologies to tell their tales. But the tech is simply a tool to communicate the messages. The stories would still exist if you changed the tools used. This would not be true for something like Star Trek or I, Robot where the technology is integral to the narrative core. Goliath seems to operate similarly in that the setting is just a tool to distance the reluctant reader from realities that are too uncomfortable when presented up close.
It is important to note, however, that for me this viewpoint does not include a position on “popular” genre writing (science fiction) and “literary” genre writing (speculative fiction)—because I find those labels to be arbitrary, useless, and about as real as a Heisenberg Compensator on Star Trek. That said, distinctions along those lines are held by the publishing gatekeepers, and so Onyebuchi’s choice to label this work, and his work more widely, science fiction may be a specific stance—ignoring the standards of the “literary” publishing machinery and its award circles in favor of telling the story he needed to tell, making the book itself another nod to who and what gets included and who or what does not. The alternative would be that Onyebuchi’s definition of science fiction is far broader than the definition held by most self-proclaimed science fiction readers (like me) which would risk alienating some readers that resent or object to operating so far out of their expectations.
So, I guess I’ve said all this to say: I did not read Goliath as science fiction, and it remains difficult for me to do so.