A Beginning At The End by Mike Chen: Love, Uh, Finds a Way in this Optimistic Dystopian Novel

A Beginning At The End

A Beginning At The End

by Mike Chen

Hardcover, 391 pg.
Mira Books, 2020

Read: January 28-February 4, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“Mommy’s not coming home.”

“No! Mama now! Want Mama!” Desperation had taken over the child’s face, eyes pooling With the Whiplash turn of raw emotions. She tossed the plastic spoon across the prison-cell-turned-living-space, her voice ramping up in volume and intensity. His arms wrapped around his daughter, even though she punched at his thigh in frustration; he held her as if she was the last thing in the world.

Rob blinked as the realization came to him. She was.

His home, his old life was gone. His parents and brother, killed by MGS. Their friends, their community, scattered and ravaged. And now Elena gone too.

Sunny was all he had left.

Well, I really painted myself into a corner with my In Medias Res post about this book a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what else there is to say! Oops.

I was more right than I was wrong about where Chen was taking some of the story—but while I had the destination correct the route he took totally caught me off-guard (and it was so good!). The parts of the story I was wrong about, however. I could not have been further off the mark if I’d tried. Both of those results are so satisfying to me, Chen nailed the nuts and bolts bits of plotting—conclusions that seem right and expected (and earned) while being very unexpected.

While Chen knows how to plot a book, characters are his strength (see also Here and Now and Then).
I could absolutely see where Moira was coming from and understood (and applauded) what she did to change her life. I felt like I got Krista’s pain and the way she reacted to her mother and uncle made sense to me (I’m not sure she was fair to her college boyfriend, even if he should’ve known better than to do what he did). And Sunny should win over even the most jaded reader. But Rob? The way Chen wrote him made me empathize with Rob to a degree that I wasn’t prepared for. That sentence I quoted above, “She was,” just about broke me.

I assume that other readers will gravitate to other characters (and Moira is probably my favorite in the novel), and they should. But Rob is going to stick around in my subconscious for a while.

All of this happens against the backdrop of a world trying to recover from a global pandemic that wiped out an unimaginable number of people. Sure, other apocalyptic scenarios seem worse (zombies, whatever lead to Panem, the First-through-Fifth Waves, etc.)—but what makes this scenario chilling is just how possible it really seems. And I’m not just saying that with one of my sister’s kids dealing with being quarantined in Asia around the time I read this.

Nevertheless, Chen’s novel is optimistic. Human beings, human society, human families prevail. Like Dr. Ian Malcolm famously said, “Life, Uh, Finds a Way.” So does humanity in Chen’s world.

Like all good Science Fiction, this is more about our present than it is our future. In a survivor’s group, Rob has a lot to say about living in fear with the source of the past hanging over is and letting the two dictate our lives. Without trying I could think of a dozen ways that could be applied to pre-apocalyptic Americans (who knows how large the number would be with some effort).

There’s more I feel like I should say, if only just to flesh out some of what I’ve put down—but at this point, I think I’ve said enough about this book over the two posts, so I’m going to stop here (so much for that corner I painted myself into). I want to do 400-600 words on the title alone (many of which would be devoted to the indefinite article).

A Beginning at The End is the kind of SF that should appeal to SF readers. It’s the kind of SF that should make non-SF readers (including those antagonistic to genre fiction) think there’s something to the genre after all. Because this isn’t “just” a SF novel. It’s a novel about humans being very human, with hopes, fears, loves, joys, sorrows, failures, and successes—it just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic future. Chen’s first novel was among the best I read in 2019. I fully expect that this will be among the best I read in 2020. I’m going to jump on whatever Chen has coming in 2021 without bothering to note the title or even skim the blurb. He’s earned an auto-read from me for at least the next two novels.

4 1/2 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

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In Medias Res: A Beginning At The End by Mike Chen

As the title implies, I’m in the middle of this book, so this is not a review, just some thoughts mid-way through.


A Beginning At The End
A Beginning At The End

by Mike Chen

Book Blurb:

Six years after a global pandemic wiped out most of the planet’s population, the survivors are rebuilding the country, split between self-governing cities, hippie communes and wasteland gangs.

In postapocalyptic San Francisco, former pop star Moira has created a new identity to finally escape her past—until her domineering father launches a sweeping public search to track her down. Desperate for a fresh start herself, jaded event planner Krista navigates the world on behalf of those too traumatized to go outside, determined to help everyone move on—even if they don’t want to. Rob survived the catastrophe with his daughter, Sunny, but lost his wife. When strict government rules threaten to separate parent and child, Rob needs to prove himself worthy in the city’s eyes by connecting with people again.

Krista, Moira, Rob and Sunny are brought together by circumstance, and their lives begin to twine together. But when reports of another outbreak throw the fragile society into panic, the friends are forced to finally face everything that came before—and everything they still stand to lose. Because sometimes having one person is enough to keep the world going.

I’m a couple of chapters shy of the halfway point, but I’m pretty excited about this book and want to get something out there about it—also, I have to take a break because I forgot about a book tour I have next week, and I really should read that book first.

So, like last year’s Here and Now and Then, Chen uses SF trappings to tell the kind of story that you don’t normally associate with Science Fiction (especially if you’re an anti-genre fiction snob).

I’m a chapter or two past a Speed Dating scene. On the one hand, it’s like every other Speed Dating scene you’ve seen from TV or the movies and/or read before. On the other hand, this is after most of the population of the earth is gone and people are trying to rebuild a facsimile of their lives in the midst of tragedy, so you’ve got the awkwardness, the insanity of the whole speed dating thing, and people dealing with unspeakable trauma at the same time. Chen makes this feel incredibly familiar and incredibly alien (yet relatable) at the same time, mildly humorous and miserable, tinged with hope and despair. And that’s just one scene. The book is full of stuff like this.

At its core (I think), this is a novel about how our past defines us, even after the apocalypse. Two characters here want to redefine themselves from the pre-pandemic lives, and somehow still can’t (at least not totally). Two characters need to redefine themselves from their post-pandemic past, and can’t seem to find the will to. It’ll take no time at all before you’re invested in these characters—you’ll want what the former two want, and hope that the latter two can somehow make things work.

Also, you’ll find you have some pretty strong feelings about Moira’s father. And they won’t be at all positive. But that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I have a few ideas where the stories are going/may end up, yet I’m reasonably certain that Chen’s ideas are better. Regardless, these are all building toward a satisfying pay-off or three. Maybe late next week I’ll have a chance to talk about this more, but for now, let me say I’m digging this and expect that about 80% of the people who read this blog on a semi-regular basis will, too.