A Review of Karen Thompson Walker’s Debut Novel
by Charlotte Bhaskar
Karen Thompson Walker’s surprising and unsettling debut novel, The Age of Miracles, boasts a premise worthy of science fiction’s “Golden Age”: Earth’s rotation is abruptly and inexplicably slowing. At first, the “slowing” -as it’s referred to in the text- seems to impact only the length of Earth’s days and nights, which quickly creep beyond their prescribed 24-hour border. Soon, however, the world’s birds begin to die off, then the whales, then sustenance crops such as wheat. New diseases and syndromes spring up, among them “gravity sickness”; humanity splits on the question of how to now measure this new time. The novel’s protagonist, an adolescent girl named Julia, addresses the unreality of the situation early on by recollecting Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “All Summer in a Day”, in which a young Earthling girl arrives at a colony on Venus where her classmates only ever see the sun once every seven years.
Had Miracles been written by Bradbury or Asimov, the slowing conceit would have been brought to the foreground – its ramifications thoroughly explored. Walker, however, approaches her story differently: the collapse of life as we know it in this tale is a backdrop for what might read as a rather conventional coming-of-age story, if we were ever allowed to forget that Julia’s growing-up is occurring amidst worldwide chaos.
Alongside the terrifying reality of the “slowing” of Earth and its accompanying trauma, Julia must navigate the loss of her Mormon best friend, the knowledge that her father’s carrying on an affair with their next-door neighbor, and her towering crush on Seth, a classmate who barely seems to notice her. A quiet, thoughtful girl, Julia observes her peers’ changes with as much detail as she does the collapsing world around her. One of her soccer team mates, for instance, has started wearing a training bra and amassing scores of boyfriends; Julia remarks that she always lends her homework when she asks for it, because her team mate is “developing a different set of skills” such as “the proper way to hold a cigarette” and “how to give a hand job.” There is a wry knowingness to Julia’s tone, but also a sense of desperation—Julia has already confided in the reader that her mother hasn’t allowed her to get her own bras yet. In other words, Walker’s novel resembles nothing so much as a Judy Blume/Isaac Asimov mash-up, where sensitive, realistic depictions of adolescent growing pains appear on the same page as the latest evidence pointing to the end of the world.
Walker is able to deftly navigate between these two narrative poles thanks to Julia. Though the story’s protagonist is preteen-Julia at the time of the slowing’s advent, it is narrated in the past tense through future-Julia, an adult whose circumstances are never fully revealed until the story’s final chapter. Somewhat paradoxically, this heightens the tension of the story: we know that Julia (and presumably much of the rest of humanity) will survive to tell this tale, but the bleak picture Walker paints makes it difficult to envision how this will occur. It’s a nifty trick that ensures that the characters’ heightened consciousness of time and its passage is mirrored by the reader.
And time is one of the story’s central elements, as its premise suggests. One of the biggest sources of plot tension stems from the dynamic between “clock timers” and “real timers”. As the slowing advances, the world’s governments decide that the only way to maintain stability is to retain the 24-hour clock. Unfortunately, since days have by now far exceeded this limit, clock timers “fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately… light unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night”. While most people obey clock time, there’s a solid contingent of real-time dissenters, who choose to remain awake while the sun’s up and sleep when the sun goes down. Huge real-time colonies form in remote deserts; any real timers still living amongst the rest of civilization are the targets of riots on “white nights” (nights when the sun is out) for daring to go against the clock. Julia’s family are, of course, clock timers.
Insights such as clock/real time and off-the-grid colonies lead to some of the most enjoyable moments in the novel. Walker’s ability to conceive of even relatively minor complications involving the slowing (a remote, unmolested Amazonian tribe decides to make contact with the Brazilian government after deciding they’ve gained power over the sun and moon, for example) is unparalleled, and an even more in-depth examination of the various effects the slowing would have on human life would be both warranted and welcomed.
However, this lack of logistical indulgence is more than made up for by Walker’s prose, which is understated and elegant, especially when dealing with time and its contortions. During a passage towards the end of the book, Julia and her crush go recklessly adventuring during a white night. Radiation warnings have swept the West Coast due to the collapse of the atmosphere, but they’ve run into the “unfamiliar sunshine, still brilliant but diffuse”. Julia describes their passage with an apocalyptic sense of nostalgia: “The streets were silent. Nothing moved. All the windows in all the houses were blacked out against the sun. We were the only ones out at that late hour. We didn’t bother with sidewalks that night; instead we walked right down the middle of the road. It was as if the time of cars had passed”. Julia’s recollection of her adolescent recklessness is tempered by the strangeness so clearly drawn in the image of a bright, car-less night; it is a startling, moving image.
Julia’s emotional connection to the state of the slowing planet is at times perhaps too bluntly drawn—for instance, in a scene where Julia’s angrily attempted to rip off the childish glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling, directly after clock time has been reinstated. Her father enters and tells her consolingly that she must sleep, for “these are amazing times”; it’s a moment of deliberate, winking vagueness that’s perhaps too clever. However, at Walker’s best, the subtle connection between the prickly transitory period of growing up and the end of the world as we know it is palpable. The Age of Miracles sets the bar high for Walker’s next novel.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker