[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker, one the surface seems one of a spate in recent years of the “end of days” books, with its premise of an Earth whose rotation suddenly starts to slow, causing worldwide devastation. But it takes a relatively meandering route to its genre, so much so that at times one wonders if the end of the world is really all that big a deal. More YA than adult, more coming-of-age than post-apocalyptic, more quiet domesticity than action-adventure, it’s an interesting take on the end-of-the-world theme, one that succeeds in places, but overall I liked the idea of what Walker was trying to do rather than its execution or end result.
The starting point is, as mentioned, that the Earth’s rotation has for some unknown reason begun to slow measurably and as The Age of Miracles progresses that slowing accelerates. With it comes a slew of associated issues: societies and individuals have to adapt to “days” that stretch out to 72 hours of light followed by an accordant amount of darkness, the slow death of plants (including food crops), unexplained die-offs of birds, a mysterious illness known as “the syndrome,” and so on. This would be the post-apocalyptic aspect of the novel. The YA coming of age storyline, which parallels all the above, comes via our main character — 11-year-old Julia — as she tries to negotiate the equally earth-shaking changes of middle school, a journey narrated by her older self.
Walker does a nice job with the long drawn out dramas as well as those tiny little moments that despite their smallness loom so large and weigh so heavily in those early adolescent years: the inevitable fraying of childhood friendships, a boy/girl walking by without even a shift of eyes in one’s direction, bus stop dynamics, the first time one plays the awkward third wheel (because there never were wheels before), and so on. The coming-of-age scenes are a little overly familiar and the prose a bit flat, but Walker does hit enough lines to keep the reader engaged and at times moved. In its best moments, it reminded me in its rhythm, voice, and focus on small moments of My So-Called Life, though without that series’ consistency of voice or vividness.
While the plot, as it happens to 11-year-old Julia, is solidly effective, the older narrative voice is less so. Sometimes the story is clearly grounded in the voice of the 11-year-old Julia then suddenly, awkwardly shifts into the voice of the elder Julia. Too often as well that voice arrives with an overdeveloped sense of portentousness, with too many of the “little did I know that would be the last time… “ kinds of lines. This heavy-handedness occurs in other ways (dialogue, plot events, imagery), which is too bad as it mars somewhat the more nuanced sense of melancholy — a layering of big picture despair over normal teen angst — that runs throughout the entire novel. A final problem with regard to the narrative voice is how often it falls into a predictable pattern whereby the older narrator comes in with heavily expository paragraphs to catch us up on the world outside Julia’s adolescent life, giving us information on crime stats for instance, or crop failures.
That outside world story was, I thought, far weaker than Julia’s internal one, beginning with the premise. Granted, the physics of it are, to say the least, iffy, but I can get by that given some help from the author. But when the story opens with the Earth having already slowed by nearly an hour before the truth is “revealed” by the experts via a shocking news conference, I’m already jolted out of my willing suspension of disbelief because it just struck me as impossible that this major shift could go unnoticed. The days of only the “scientists” paying attention to or being affected by the “arcana” of just how long a day lasts are long gone, as are the days where they’re the only ones with instruments sensitive enough to detect such a change — heck, my few hundred dollars telescope would have picked that up.
The hand-waving at the start might have been relegated to a tiny nagging voice receding in my head as I continued, save that each new “unexplained” event brought it forward once again. Why were birds dying and no other animals? Without any substantive attempt at an explanation (a few half-hearted ones are made), the only answer as a reader becomes “because the author wants a nice mood enhancer — look dead birds — that’s sad and foreboding!” Why are people getting sick? Again, without an attempt at an answer, I end up with “to add to the general sense of heaviness and despair.” The sum result was the underlying events felt arbitrary, crafted, and manipulative.
Beyond the scientific underpinning and directly related natural effects, the impact on society was too implausibly minor. We’re told the market lost “billions” because people thought the world was ending. Americans lost trillions in the Great Recession; I’m thinking the actual end of the world might have had a somewhat larger, rather than smaller, impact. We’re told the price of oil jumped, but beyond one singular day with long lines at the stations, there is nothing to indicate there is any change — everyone is blithely driving place to place just as before. The same goes for energy usage, eating habits, and a host of other activities which the Slowing should have intruded into in ways that simply couldn’t have been ignored.
I understand that part of the idea here is to focus on the internal coming of age, and perhaps to dramatize the epigraph at the start: “Here in the last minutes, the very end of the world, someone’s tightening a screw… straightening flowers.” Yes, those things do get done at the end of the world, life does go on, but the same acts don’t mean the same life and too often that’s what this felt like. We like to think adolescence is a “different world,” but it isn’t, not literally. Julia might still worry about her first bra, but in a world of skyrocketing energy costs, dying crops, and utterly disrupted economies — that first bra shopping shouldn’t be exactly like it would have been for an older sister last year.
Outside of this big-picture issue, the plot has several more concrete, specific problems that weakened The Age of Miracles’ overall effect. A “surprising” solar eclipse is hard to buy, an affair never feels real, a snow storm comes out of nowhere as does a rain storm for a funeral, a character conveniently forgets about something from his childhood that’s hard to imagine him forgetting.
In the end, The Age of Miracles occasionally won me over with Julia’s younger voice and its depiction of that painful vulnerability of those early teen years. But too many other issues of plot, premise, and voice kept me from fully enjoying it. It felt to me like a novel that would appeal far more to YA readers than adults, so I’d be a little wary of the marketing of it as literary adult fiction.