The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

About halfway through the book, I wrote a rather scathing review, mostly about how it was too absurd to finish. But this morning, I did it. It’s my day off. I woke up, caffeinated myself, and zipped through to the end. Has my impression changed?

Not really, but in a way yes.

What I liked about it stayed the same: the simple, but vivid language. The empathic style. The believable dignity of all of its characters.

What I didn’t like about it stayed the same: the poorly researched catastrophic backdrop. The author’s apparent fear of science.

It’s a book about growing up during the slow death of the world. Due to an unexplained “slowing” in the planet’s rotation, life on Earth is dying, and it is implied, the human race with it. An 11-year-old girl suffers the usual coming-of-age trials: insecurity, ostracism, loneliness, the sudden appreciation that her parents are human and fallible. All this in the shadow of the looming, slowly advancing apocalypse, the greatest, and possibly last threat to our species’ existence.

In my last review I focused on making a single general point about errors in this kind of science fiction (and it IS science fiction): that they damage the literature. That to point them out in a review is not to nitpick or subtly brag about one’s own scientific knowledge, it is to offer a legitimate literary criticism. I’ve found many more errors of this type in the second half of the text, but I’d rather not add to the list, instead, I wanted to summarize my thoughts, now that I am examining the work in its completed, intended form.

It was a bit unfair that I read this book immediately after Isaac Asimov’s Foundations. The standards it set for precision and completeness of vision are a little unreasonable for a young adult novel. But, I’m certain, this book would have been much improved if the author had decided to boldly face the scientific underpinnings of her story instead of turning away. The author thought, perhaps, that the narrator being an 11 year old girl, she could avoid learning, herself, the scientific ins and outs of her created world. She thought, maybe, that instead of laying first the foundations of her world, she could simply pick and choose the scientific elements that suited her when she needed to move the plot along. As a result, certain random, catastrophic consequences of the “slowing” emerge from nowhere and then recede immediately into irrelevance. An earthquake is mentioned exactly once, and oddly, instead of the California home of our protagonist, it strikes Kansas. Flooding, far from permanently altering the landscape, only makes for an otherworldly experience of exploring an abandoned, waterlogged house… Other factoids make unconvincing appearances here and there as if to fill up some kind of scientific quota. The most annoying of which is a persistent return to the “increasing… centrifugal force” [sic] and consequently gravity’s greater pull on falling objects (soccer balls, airplanes, birds, and most astonishingly, even pedestrians that have been struck by cars). This is wrong on so many levels.

But that’s not the point. I’m making the book sound really bad. But it’s not. In fact, it’s close to being really good. Imagine the same book, but instead of an apocalypse that graciously accommodated the lives of our protagonists and moved their dramas along at convenient times, imagine we have protagonists that are small and powerless in the face of an unrelenting natural force, who remind us this unmitigable force of extinction upon our species and our history and all of our science and hopes and art is the mere triviality of one planet of one star among billions and billions slowing its spin ever so slightly. Imagine the disasters, gruesome and vivid, piling one on top of another, breathlessly, never receding, only compounding. Imagine our protagonists struggling, not with unlikely and vague illnesses such as gravity-sickness, but really struggling, for shelter, and trust, and food, making desperate and inadequate preparations for the inevitable instead of birthday party plans (or lack there of). Then, maybe, the smallness of of our bodies would be laid out plainly besides the largeness of our vision, courage. Maybe then, what the kids write in the drying concrete, the “We were here”, this final fading acknowledgement of their struggle and their story, would have its desired effect.

The original review

I try to finish this book, but it’s too absurd.

The earth made its usual swing around the sun, its 400 billionth loop, one of the very few things that year to actually remain on course.

p.132

It was on display at the library in the young adult section. Its cover is an artsy arrangement of space and stars. So of course I picked it up.

The story is interesting, the prose is fetching, if a little thin on variety. But I’m having a rough time, and this is unusual for books that meet both the style-and-substance criteria. Here’s the premise: a new brand of apocalypse, this time, a gradual slowing and eventual (I’m assuming) halt of the earth’s rotation. Days and nights are growing longer, hotter and colder, the ocean is sloshing about. Coastal homes flood–starfish frolick on granite countertops, anemones grow in stainless steel sinks, sea foam coats hardwood floors. Something very terrible is happening to the earth while its citizens try to carry on life as usual.

Where is all the angular momentum going? Well, the narrator is 11 years old ok? She doesn’t know, and the scientists don’t know, either, can do nothing about it; it’s a mysterious, magical force, that’s all.

Fine. This doesn’t bother me, honest. I’m along for the ride, I can believe this. But as the pages flip by, the narrator grows and suffers, a marriage falls apart, governments crumple, and all the while a steady suspicion grows in me that the author’s dodging of the issue, her avoidance of the “why” of her catastrophe, far from being an artistic choice (like in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”), is a result of a complete lack of scientific curiosity.

Besides the quote above, which by some amazing oversight, dates the Earth at about 30 times the age of the universe, [imagine, by the way, if an author made an error of this relative magnitude with a most basic historical fact–made a reference to the 21,687 B.C. signing of the Declaration of Independence, say-] there’s also the author’s fixation on the miniscule increase in the apparent gravitational acceleration at the earth’s surface. True, g would be at most roughly 0.003 times larger, at the equator, after the Earth stops spinning entirely. Yet, already, the rate of rotation not yet reduced by a factor of two, in our Northern Hemisphere town, we’re finding it difficult to kick soccer balls, throw footballs, fly airplanes, birds are falling out of the sky (though the attribution to increased gravity has yet to be made), baseball pitches are going wild… Yes, it could happen. In a world were pitches are thrown at about 500 miles an hour and the distance to home plate is a third of a kilometer and there is never any air, it could happen.

I don’t want to be mean. But the novel is premised on a natural disaster, a potential end of all life on Earth. And instead of addressing the global shifting of the oceans, implosion of familiar weather patterns, potentially massive earthquakes as the crust rearranges beneath our feet, and the loss of our magnetic field resulting in wide-spread radiation poisoning from cosmic rays, we’re treated to the exaggerated effects of the only completely manageable consequence of this catastrophe. Meanwhile, the main concern of world leaders seems to be the clock, the unhooking of our circadian rhythms to the day-night cycles of the earth. The protagonist hears on the news not of entire nations going under water but about an earth-shattering decision the president makes to stay on 24 hour time.

Granted, she does talk about flooding, but it is attributed to stronger tides and not the loss of the equatorial bulge. Granted, she does talk about the extremely hot days and very cold nights, but somehow, food supplies have not been interrupted, and Southern California weather is still its perfect, sunny self, 330 days of the year.

Someone on a negative Amazon review of this book was voted down for pointing out a series of errors she’d found. Like these errors shouldn’t matter to the quality of the book. I think that’s crap. I can honestly say that it is not my concern that we are feeding kids a somewhat wrong impression of the world. Errors by themselves are forgivable. In this case, I simply couldn’t continue to believe in the world that the author is trying to create. And that’s a literary criticism not a scientific one.

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One thought on “The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

  1. Bram says:

    Absolutely true. Read this blog after finishing the book. This book is a disaster in itself. How to spoil a good idea…

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