by Mike Chen
Hardcover, 391 pg.
Read: January 28-February 4, 2020
“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.
This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.