Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles got huge buzz over the summer, with mainstream magazines like Entertainment Weekly giving it rave reviews. I lost count of how many times I saw it referred to as one of the year's most important books. My local indie bookstore has it in a coveted corner spot on the "new fiction" table, as of a few days ago. Supposedly Random House paid $1 million for the book rights.
So I was really curious to read Age of Miracles — and sadly, it's not that great. And it's the ultimate example of that mythical beast: the literary novel by someone who apparently thinks doing science fiction is easy. Spoilers ahead...
The Age of Miracles has a premise worthy of Roland Emmerich, or the makers of The Core. The rotation of the Earth slows down, and pretty much overnight, one day is 25 hours. Within a short time, the days get longer and longer. So by the time you're a ways into the book, a day is 48 hours long, meaning that there are 24 hours of sunlight and around 24 hours of darkness. Meanwhile, gravity gets heavier for some reason, so all the birds fall out of the sky and die, and there are plagues of insects that the birds no longer eat. Eventually, people start getting sick for unexplained reasons — which is a separate phenomenon from the horrible burns as the Earth's magnetic field slowly vanishes.
To the author's credit, at no point does anybody seriously claim that this global slowdown is anthropogenic or due to global warming or whatnot. On the flipside, though, there's no explanation. It's just a thing that happens.
A lot of people I talked to at Worldcon said they'd refused to read Age of Miracles due to the ridiculous premise. But I'm pretty tolerant of ludicrous story ideas — if nothing else, you can always view something like that as a metaphor or a version of magic realism. Plus, if you read enough classic golden age science fiction, you're bound to come across some insane ideas, and if someone told me there was a lost Philip K. Dick novel where the Earth slowed down and gravity got heavier, I would read it in a heartbeat.
And Age of Miracles is not a terrible book. Just very mediocre. There's some lovely writing in there, but it's not enough to rescue it from some major flaws. In particular, there are long stretches of exposition that feel totally disconnected from the main character — in a novel with a first-person narrator, there are huge chunks that feel distanced and overstuffed with information. And it never really feels as though this person is dealing with endless darkness followed by endless light. (Can you imagine how intense that would be?) It never feels like there are really bugs everywhere, or anything. A novel with such a huge premise needs to feel visceral and inescapable — you need to feel like you're trapped in a day or a night that won't quit — and Walker doesn't even try to go there.
Age of Miracles is a very conventional, by-the-numbers coming-of-age novel, which could mostly work with the "global slowing" element removed. The main character, Julia, goes through puberty, falls in love with a boy, deals with bullying, realizes her dad is having an affair, and confronts her grandfather's mortality. As a classic growing-up novel in the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary tradition, it's not bad stuff at all. You would need to make one or two minor tweaks to make the main character's story work without any of the "global slowing" stuff, like invent some other reason why people hate her piano teacher. (More on that in a minute.)
But the personal stuff is interspersed with long, somewhat dry passages, where Walker tells us what's happening around the world, with the global slowdown. And this stuff feels like a synopsis for a novel that she hasn't bothered to write. Seriously. The first chunk of every single chapter is a long info-dump, where huge, disastrous events are described, as if from a great distance. And then we return to the tight first-person POV of Julia, whose life goes on, with some fairly major inconveniences.
The expository passages describe huge global disasters, including floods and famine and stuff, but none of this stuff seems to touch the protagonist directly, most of the time. (Even when the main character mentions that they need floodlights to go to school when it's dark outside, you don't feel it.) There are plenty of exceptions to the "show don't tell" rule, but this novel is like Exhibit A for why that rule exists.
Science fiction writers and readers often talk about this mythical beast called the "slumming" literary writer, who writes science fiction or fantasy without bothering to understand their borrowed genre. And because of this lack of awareness, the literary author makes rookie mistakes. Iain M. Banks explains the concept pretty well here.
The thing is, I've always believed this phenomenon doesn't happen nearly as often as people suppose — there are plenty of "lit" writers like Colson Whitehead, Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood, who tackle science fiction as well as any Clarion grad. When you see a literary SF book sporting elementary mistakes, like Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods, it tends to stand out. But when I was done reading The Age of Miracles, I really was left thinking I'd found an example of the mythical "literary genre-slumming novel."
(Walker's narrator does mention Ray Bradbury's story "All Summer in a Day" towards the end of the book, and it's briefly gratifying to realize that she's aware of some science fiction.)
There is definitely some lovely writing in Age of Miracles, and you do sense at times that Walker is trying to create a metaphor here about growing up or feeling trapped in the flow of time. Early on in the book, when the days are still just 25 hours long, the narrator says:
Time moved differently that Saturday. Already the morning felt like yesterday. By the time we sat waiting for the sun to drift down behind the hills to the west, it seemed to me that several days had passed inside the skin of just this one, as if the day had ballooned by much more than a single small hour.
And also, when a bird flies into a window and dies (the harbinger of the coming bird extinction), Walker describes her father cleaning up its corpse:
A troupe of ants had discovered the body and were marching back and forth from the edge of the deck, descending deep into the feathers, and emerging with tiny bits of the bird on their backs.
My father flapped a white trash bag in the air until it snapped open and inflated.
But then several pages later, there's this:
As has been well documented, rates of murder and other violent crime spiked in the days and weeks following the start of the slowing. There was something in the atmosphere. It was as if the slowing had slowed our judgment too, letting loose our inhibitions. But I've always felt that it should have produced the opposite effect. This much is certainly true: After the slowing, every action required a little more force than it used to. The physics had changed.
Towards the end of the book, she chimes in:
Much study has been devoted to the physical effects of gravity sickness, but more lives than history will ever record were transformed by the subtler psychological shifts that also accompanied the slowing. For reasons we've never fully understood, the slowing — or its effects — altered the brain chemistry of certain people, disturbing most notably the fragile balance between impulse and control.
By this point in the book, days and nights are lasting scores of hours each — and an exploration of what this would do to people's psyches would indeed be fascinating. That's not really what we get here though. In some sense, this novel is a victim of its over-ambitious premise: Unable to deliver a realistic take on this global descent into madness, the narrator is reduced to lecturing us.
That said, there is some exploration of the ramifications of the global slowing and the increased gravity — including the environmental problems that result, but also the social and economic problems. Like, how do you grow crops when you don't have consistent sunlight? How much electricity does it take to power the lamps that keep your crops growing during the endless nights? Walker has done some thinking about these issues, to her credit.
And the novel's most memorable subplot has to do with the debate over what to do with the lengthening days. Early on, the President announces that everybody is going to stay on a 24-hour day, regardless of how long the days actually become. Which means that you're sleeping in daylight and going out in total darkness, a lot of the time. Some rebellious people decide to go "off the clock," sleeping when it's dark and working when it's light out. These hippie-ish rebels are not just ostracized but actually persecuted and attacked.
It's a neat twist, the notion that everybody decides to scapegoat the minority of people who want to live according to the actual day-and-night cycle, instead of some artificial clock. I'm never entirely convinced that people would suddenly mass with pitchforks and torches against a minority of people who want to sleep when it's dark outside — but that's more a function of the fact that the book never feels as oppressive or intense as it kind of needs to be.
One upside about this book, though, is that it might make a pretty good movie — and as I already said, the premise is not too outlandish for Hollywood. The advantage of doing a movie version of Age of Miracles is that a lot of stuff that doesn't come across on the page will be right there, on screen. You'll see the main character going to school in pitch darkness, you'll (hopefully) see the dead birds and masses of insects everywhere. The stuff that the narrator resorts to describing from an immense distance will have to be shown somehow, because you can't have that much voiceover in a single movie. So this might be the rare story that's better as a movie than as a book.