The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

age of m

This is a novel with a great ‘what if’ premise: what if Earth’s rotation slowed down and the days grew longer.  What would the implications be, both physically and psychologically?  Karen Thompson Walker traces the effects of the slowing, as it is called, on a young girl on the Californian coast who is already trying to make sense of her world.  The result is very soft science fiction, the coming-of-age story of 11-year old Julia, told in the first person.

Julia is worried more about friendships and loneliness, love and her parents’ rocky relationship, than she is about the slowing and what it portends.  Not that she can ignore what is happening around her.  The consequences become increasingly severe as the rotation decelerates and days lengthen, with roasting days, freezing nights, animal and plant life dying, a mystery ‘gravity sickness’ affecting some humans, and eventually the decay of the magnetic field leading to increased risk from solar radiation.  The last becomes so dangerous that the sun has to be avoided, forcing the people to remain indoors during daytime and only venture out at night, ghosts in their own time.

In response to the crisis, the US government decrees that the population should remain on the 24-hour clock, resulting in all permutations of light/dark and day/night, natural days and nights eventually the length of clock weeks.  Some dissidents attempt to adjust to the new rhythms and come off ‘clock time‘, remaining awake while it is light, leading to social friction. Meanwhile, food production slumps and has to be stimulated by artificial light in vast greenhouses.  Some foods – bananas, strawberries, grapes – become a memory.  This is all scarily plausible.  As you read, you sense that this could happen, and appreciate the vulnerability of the Goldilocks Zone we inhabit.  Our assumptions about the regularity of our planet could be erroneous, and nothing should be taken for granted.

There is a surprising nod to David Hume in the title.  In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which he tackles the problem of miracles, Hume argues that there is no logical basis for assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow simply because it has in the past.  We assume that experience is a guide to the future, but we cannot rely on this assumption.  It is only habit that assures us thus, and past events, however regular, are no guarantee that tomorrow’s will be identical: “That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. “

The cause of the slowing is never discovered.  This is not a definite End-of the-world film with a hurtling asteroid , or a radioactive cloud resulting from nuclear war, promising obliteration.  There is nothing as obvious as a The Day the Earth Caught Fire scenario, with nuclear explosions knocking the planet out of its orbit.  The sense of looming disaster quietly builds, but we never move outside Julia’s head.  At the end of the book, as she looks forward, the fate of the world’s population is unknown , though the prognosis is not good.

Having young Julia as narrator has advantages and disadvantages.  It means that Walker does not have to dwell much on the science, but the disadvantage is a frustrating parochialism, with little sense of how the disaster is affecting other places around the world, apart from the odd reference to famine in less fortunate countries.  I particularly warmed to Julia when I discovered that we share the same birthday, but one might wish for a more knowledgeable protagonist.

Not that it makes any difference, we eventually discover that the story is not in fact being narrated by an 11-year old as we had supposed, because right at the end we learn that she is now in her twenties.  That makes the lack of a wider political discussion on the events, increased mass migration leading to societal breakdown for example, even more remiss.  Science and geopolitics are not the focus, Julia’s growing pains are, but there would have been room for both, if Walker had had more confidence in following where her premise took her, and had her eye more on the creative possibilities than a commercial calculation of her target market.  The decade jump in the last couple of pages for a quick wrap-up feels suspiciously like uncertainty by the author how to conclude the story.

According to the Guardian, The Age of Miracles sold for £500,000 in Britain and $1 million in the US, and the film adaptation is in development, with Catherine Hardwicke penciled in to direct; a sensible choice because the Twilight fans will love it.  The sums say more about the acumen of Walker’s agent than about the quality of the book.  It is indeed an age of miracles.

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