The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson


The world’s begun to spin more slowly on its axis. How do you react? Perhaps equally importantly, how do animals and plants respond? How does society change? This is the basic precept of The Age of Miracles.

As the Earth’s rotation slows1, the planet’s ecology is affected: birds cannot fly, whales beach themselves as they try to migrate, plants weaken and die as the light-dark diurnal cycle lengthens. Human society splits into two groups, the clock-timers, the more conventional group which continues to use the 24-hour cycle despite it’s increasing irrelevance to what is conventionally called “a day”, and the day-timers, who attempt to follow the light-dark cycle as humans have always done, sleeping when it’s dark and waking when it’s light. As the Earth’s revolution continues to slow, not surprisingly the plants begin to weaken and die as they’re unable to adjust to the changing light cycle, and the effect ripples up the food chain. Humans begin to hoard canned food, vitamin pills and batteries; demand for sleep masks and blackout curtains surges past factories’ capacity. Eventually, the global climate itself begins to alter; snow in San Diego, heatstroke in the frigid polar regions and so on.

I’d strongly suggest that readers view this as a coming-of-age story rather than an example of post-apocalypse dystopian science fiction; the science in the book struck me as weak, and/or underdeveloped, starting with a lack of explanation for the triggering event, the slowing of the Earth’s rotation, not to mention much about why this altering rotation affects gravitation—something about centrifugal force counteracting it? It’s entirely possible to include too much scientific detail, especially if you’re aiming for a mainstream chicklit audience, but a smidge more information would have been nice. How did the human race manage to survive for the intervening decade between the initial slowing and the framing conclusion if the plants die off and as a result, the animals: what did the people eat?

It doesn’t help my impression of the book that it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen in years of the phrase, “the devil is in the detail”> I won’t bore readers of my blog with a list of such details, except to note that at one point Julia refers to her two Siamese cats as being of different breeds. Um, no. “Siamese” is a breed. In fairness, there are sub-types within the Siamese breed, and there are other similar breeds, such as the Himalayan, Burmese, or Tonkinese. But I’d expect better from someone who’d herself been a book editor.

Some of the techniques Thompson uses are ones I regard as flaws; for example, she tells us us what’s happening rather than showing us how the plants are dying, the animals unable to cope. (and why just birds and whales? I know the story’s set in a built-up suburb in southern California on the beach, but surely there would be bats and snakes and raccoons and insects and mice?) While I understand that an eleven or twelve-year-old girl might not be able to understand or explain what’s going on, based on her own knowledge of biology, astronomy and geology…the twelve-year-old Julia isn’t the true narrator. The real narrator is the twenty-three-year-old Julia, looking back at events over the perspective of an intervening decade.

I’d argue, however, that the book’s greater strength and interest lies in the author’s choosing to concentrate on the perspective of one tween girl—Julia turns twelve in the book, old enough to begin taking an interest in the adult world around her but young enough to retain some of the innocence and ignorance of childhood—and therefore not quite understanding what she sees. It’s a world of training-bra envy and unreciprocated crushes, finding your place in the world, developing your own sense of self and beginning to separate from your parents.

The foreshadowing is more than slightly heavy-handed. Yes, I know the story’s actually being told by Julia at twenty-three rather than the child she was at the time, and so therefore, the narrator knows ‘now’ things she couldn’t have guessed at the time the main narrative transpires. I wish Thompson had gone a little easier on the portentous evocations of impending doom, as there are more than a few scenes with all the delicacy of an avalanche and all the lightness of a plate of gnocchi, and concentrated instead on a more delicate suggestion of hints. As it stands, all that foreshadowing took away from the suspense of the main narrative; it’s obvious that Julia does survive, given all the hints she drops, and that weakens any fear I might have had at her eventual fate.

Show me, don’t tell me, in other words.

That said, in fairness, there clearly are a number of people who genuinely did like this book and as a librarian I need to be evenhanded with anyone interested in reading. If you liked this, what to read next? If you liked the science fiction/apocalypse aspects of it, try Across the Universe. Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is another possibility for people who liked the “post-apocalypse” aspects but want less science than in The Age of Miracles. I think a closer match might be The Lovely Bones.

The New York Times
Washington Post
Huffington Post

1the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is unaffected, thankfully

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