Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Age of Miracles (review)

In his book “Writing Science Fiction” (St. Martin’s Press, 1988), author Christopher Evans says, “Perhaps the crispest definition is that science fiction is a literature of ‘what if?’ What if we could travel in time? What if we were living on other planets? What if we made contact with alien races? And so on. The starting point is that the writer supposes things are different from we know them to be.”
            Karen Thompson Walker, in her debut novel “The Age of Miracles” (Random House, 2012), asks the question “What would happen if the rotation of the Earth begins to slow, if the days and nights alike grow longer and longer?” Like all good science fiction, Walker’s book goes beyond “what if” to “what does it mean?”
            Walker’s prose is flat-out gorgeous. Julia, who in the course of the story turns 12, opens the story: “We didn’t notice it right away. We couldn’t feel it.
            “We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
            “We were distracted back then by weather and war…. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began.”
            Set in a southern California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow. At first, Julia feels not “fear but a thrill…a sudden sparkle amid the ordinary, the shimmer of the unexpected thing.”
But as the extra minutes of the days and nights stretch into hours and then days, the grave consequences of the slowing become apparent. Birds fall from the sky, whales wash up on beaches, people fall ill—all victims of the Earth’s changing gravitational and magnetic fields. Food supplies are threatened. To preserve order (and the stock markets), the government tells people to stay on the 24-hour clock, even though that would mean falling out of sync with the sun. The few “real-timers” who insist on trying to maintain their own circadian rhythms are shunned by the “clock-timers.”
Despite the widespread implications of the slowing, “The Age of Miracles” is very much Julia’s coming of age story. She watches as her parents grow apart, divided by their responses to the slowing; suffers the rejection of a friend who believes that the apocalypse is near; and falls in love with a quiet, thoughtful boy named Seth.
The catastrophic upheaval of the Earth’s natural rhythms can be read as a perfect metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Julia ponders, “…the slowing triggered certain other changes too, less visible at first but deeper…. Perhaps my adolescence was only an average adolescence, the stinging a quite unremarkable stinging…. Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

This review originally published in the Sunday, September 30, 2012 News-Gazette. Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 14 books. You can learn more about her work and read past reviews at http://www.saralatta.com.