A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The current crop of apocalyptic sci-fi books shows clearly that fiction is a form of thought experiment and that science fiction is really about the present time. I’ve got at least 4 books stacked by my chair that I’ve had to put down because the authors picked pandemic for their apocalypse and I don’t want to read about them. Chen was coming to the Tucson Festival of Books so I started reading his book with its hopeful title in March, having forgotten—if I knew—that he picked pandemic, too. I was able to keep reading this one. Chen’s book centers around people, not ideas, and that’s why it’s readable and hopeful in the current situation.
A decade 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. The poor, as always, are stuck in one place or the other. Tensions are rising again, along with the threat of new outbreaks. The plot centers around Moira, a former child star voice artist who’s been hiding from her domineering stage dad for years; Rob, a single dad who has to keep proving to social services that he deserves custody of his daughter Sunny; and Krista, an event planner with a big heart and radical friends. Their challenges are both personal and communal, with society in such flux, but people of good heart usually find a way to achieve their dreams, especially with a little help from friends—and they do.
There’s definitely a difference between the newer sci-fi authors and the Boomers; Chen is definitely new school. The real feat that Chen pulls off is to embed his hopefulness in an engaging plot, with likable characters, and to keep the politics offstage and out of total war, through compromise. Usually in these books there are clear winners and losers; Chen has written a way into the future that is workable and believable because the only thing that works in our lived reality is compromise: nobody wins everything but nobody loses everything, either. If only the politicians would quit living in the fantasy worlds of total domination and move into the world where the rest of humanity resides. Books like this remind us of what’s really possible. Recommended.
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