Imagine turning on the news one morning and learning that the earth’s rotation is slowing; that today will be 56 minutes longer than yesterday. This is the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles.
“What had been familiar once became less and less so. How extraordinary it would seem to us eventually that our sun once set as predictably as clockwork. And how miraculous it would soon seem that I was once a happier girl, less lonely and less shy. But I guess every bygone era takes on a shade of myth. With a little persuasion, any familiar thing can turn abnormal in the mind.”
The story is told from the perspective of Julia, a middle school student coming of age in suburban California. As the days grow progressively longer, the trials of junior high play out against the trauma of a dramatically changing planet.
“One soccer practice was canceled when a million ladybugs descended on the field at once. Even beauty, in abundance, turns creepy.”
As the earth slows, plant and animal life is disrupted. Birds struggle to fly, whales beach themselves in mass, insects thrive, grass dies, and coastal homes are abandoned in the face of rising tides. Fears about the world’s food supply prompt hording and the construction of backyard greenhouses.
“As obvious as the implications would be later, the effects of the plan were not immediately clear to me. What would become apparent soon enough was this: We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night. And not everyone would go along with the plan.”
In an effort to control a chaotic situation, the government announces its plan for “clock time.” Most people begin living by the standard 24-hour clock, making dawn a different experience each new day. Yet a minority of people known as “real-timers” resist the plan, choosing instead to live longer days, defined by the rising and setting of the sun. As the two communities quickly diverge, paranoia and suspicions rise.
“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. Take, for example, the slightly increased drag of a hand on a knife or a finger on a trigger. From then on, we all had a little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel? Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret? But the new gravity was not enough to overcome the pull of certain forces, more powerful, less known – no law of physics can account for desire.”
As the days lengthen, first to forty, eventually to sixty hours, physical and psychological effects of the slowing begin to manifest. “Slowing syndrome” is rampant, causing debilitating dizziness and lethargy. Julia’s mother struggles with the mysterious illness. The behavior of loved ones becomes erratic: Julia learns that her father is keeping secrets, her grandfather disappears, her best friend turns cold.
“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.”
I subscribe strongly to the practice of not finishing books that I do not find interesting, so as a result, most of the books I read are ones that I enjoy. What stood out for me about The Age of Miracles, besides its intriguing plot, were many of Walker’s phrasing choices. It’s rare that I read a book and am able to recall specific lines from it days after having finished the story. Accessible science fiction, told with the immediacy of first person narrative, The Age of Miracles should appeal to a wide range of readers. Appropriate for teens and adults, and a possible selection for book clubs.