This is my synopsis for The Boy at the End of the World, a middle-grade science fiction novel. Note that I go out of my way not to call it a science fiction novel, because science fiction is usually called something else in middle-grade. Because … I don’t even know. Capitalism. Some general notes about my synopses and context here.
This is what he knew:
His name was Fisher.
He was fourteen years old.
He was alone.
And that was all.
In a futuristic novel that comments on our current society and culture, the last living boy on Earth must learn to balance survival and self-interest against friendship and self-sacrifice.
Before civilization fell into ruin, scientists built an underground Life Ark in the Appalachian Mountains, a facility where six hundred human specimens lay asleep and protected in hopes that one day they’d be awoken to repopulate the Earth. When the Life Ark is bombed by forces unknown, fourteen-year-old Fisher wakes up in his preservation chamber. He finds nothing but destruction around him, all the other humans crushed by debris. As far as Fisher knows, he’s the only human left alive.
Fisher has no memories preceding having been “born” in his chamber, but his head contains small areas of knowledge: He has language, and he knows his name and age, and he knows how to build a fire.
Pursued by a mechanical man, Fisher runs from the Ark and faces an outside world of desolate ruins and the glowing eyes of nocturnal predators. When he’s attacked by a pack of bipedal rats, the mechanical man saves him. The machine, whom Fisher names Click, is a damaged custodial robot from the Ark who has taken on the task of helping Fisher survive such that he can eventually rebuild the human race. Each member of the preserved human community was supposed to have been born with implanted knowledge and skills, from metalwork, to medicine, to leadership abilities. But Click only had time to program Fisher with a limited profile — a strong survival instinct and specialized fishing skills. Click knows of the existence, but not the exact location, of another Ark on the West Coast, where there may still be surviving humans. Fisher determines to cross the 2600-mile wide continent to find the other Ark.
Making their way down from the mountains, they are joined by a cloned juvenile Columbian mammoth whose herd was annihilated by “gadjits,” intelligent military drones bent on wiping out rival intelligences.
The three companions are hunted by terror birds: giant, carnivorous parrots who, like their ancestors, mimic human speech. And their message is this: “You will die. You will all die.” Barely escaping with their lives, Fisher is left with the mystery of who taught the parrots these threatening words.
Fisher and his friends continue west, until coming to the Mississippi River. They encounter fragments of lost civilization: an airport, a truck stop, a housing development. Beneath the ruins of the St. Louis Arch stand the more intact ruins of the McDonald’s golden arches.
Fisher builds a raft to take him and his companions down the river, a waterway now clogged by the tops of skyscrapers and crumbling freeway overpasses. They survive rapids but go over a waterfall. Almost drowning (or in Click’s case, merely sinking), they drag themselves onshore, only to be captured by a band of evolved river otters. The otter clan doesn’t have spoken language, but they’re clearly intelligent. They march Fisher and his friends to their village, where their leader signals for their execution. But after a gadjit raid, during which Fisher saves the otters, the clan leader decides to let Fisher and his friends go.
Joined by a pod of freshwater whales, the companions fight their way past piranha-like miniature crocodiles and gadjit outposts. Fisher follows tributaries westward. Before leaving him to continue his journey by land, the whales warn that he’s leading Click and the mammoth into even greater dangers, things that the whales know only from myths handed down in song over the generations. They speak of cities of the dead and ghosts. And that’s what Fisher finds in the remains of what was once Chicago, an eerie landscape where the recorded voices of the last humans drone from loudspeakers, telling the sad tale of humankind’s final days, how they fell to environmental degradation and disease and warfare, both a bang and a whimper.
Click goes missing in the night, abducted by tool-using ravens who consider him a shiny object to be taken apart. When Fisher’s rescue attempt goes awry and his survival is put at its greatest jeopardy, Fisher must overcome his implanted instinct. He must learn to put aside the part of him that weighs risk and benefit, and he decides to save Click, even though his own death could mean the definitive end of the human race.
After a daring rescue, Fisher and his friends beat a hasty retreat from the city. Click scolds Fisher for having made the wrong choice in rescuing him, and Fisher is himself still not certain he did the right thing.
On the Great Plains, the party finds great flocks of passenger pigeons, and thundering masses of bison, and a Columbian mammoth herd, the descendants of cloning experiments from long ago. Though reluctant to leave his friend, Fisher hopes the herd will accept his juvenile companion. But they reject him, considering him “other.” Fisher wonders, should he make it to the Western Ark, if he’ll suffer a similar rejection from his fellow humans.
Fisher finds a colony of genetically “uplifted” meerkats, the descendants of the military’s weaponized animals programs, bred for reconnaissance, infiltration, and sabotage. The meerkats’ legends reveal the location of the Western Ark, which contains not only preserved humans, but also a great wealth of other animal specimens, including mammoths and meerkats. A small detachment of meerkats joins Fisher, Click, and the mammoth to complete the journey.
Too late, Fisher learns that the gadjits have been following him west, attacking not to kill him, but to keep him running toward the Western Ark. The Ark’s defenses are keyed to human DNA, so only Fisher can deactivate them. Not realizing he’s making the Ark vulnerable to the gadjits, he arrives at the Ark and brings down the defenses.
The gadjits attack in full force. In a pitched battle, Fisher and his friends defeat the machines, but the Ark is damaged. Fisher has only minutes to awaken the specimens. While Click and the meerkats concentrate on reviving the animals, Fisher finds the humans. The first one he awakens is a girl.
This is what she knew:
Her name was Farmer.
She was fourteen years old.
And she was not alone.