Postal Reading group
September 2019
Notes on the book The Age of miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, the Age of miracles, would appear to be a cross between apocalyptic fantasy and a coming of age story. As such it makes it difficult to classify this book, and equally difficult to know what to expect. At first, its an interesting idea, and the book starts off well, but it does begin to drag by the end.

The basic story is that Julia, growing up with her family in California, is entering puberty and the difficult teenage years just as the Earth’s rotation is slowing significantly. The book therefore tries to cover both aspects: the possible consequences of such a slowing, and the experiences of a girl coming of age. The writing is generally good, and the book is a reasonably quick read, especially at the beginning. The hope is that the two themes will broaden the appeal of the book, although in reality, I feel that neither theme has been developed particularly well. As a science fiction or apocalypse type book, it really doesn’t seem to work. As a coming of age story it is better, and it may appeal to a teenage audience, but even here it would seem to be unexceptional.

Many of the problems which Julia seems to face in the book are common enough at that age: coming to terms with changes in their own body, difficulties in personal relationships, friends moving away, parents too absorbed with their own problems and so on. Yes, of course, the teenage years are difficult, and it is much worse when even the Earth’s rotation can’t be relied upon, but the effects on Julia, or events as seen from her point of view, seem so unremarkable. It must be a part of growing up that the things which seemed so stable when we were children suddenly cannot be relied upon. Although children have not yet had to face anything as catastrophic as the planet’s rotation slowing, based on the consequences in the book, it would appear little different from today’s children facing the threat of climate change, or those witnessing Europe’s descent into the turmoil of the two world wars.

Indeed, one of the problems is that the major events which you expect never really seem to happen. Julia’s mild transgressions go un-noticed, the big family argument doesn’t really happen, her father’s affair with Sylvia dies out, and no-one actually starves. While there is panic buying, a prolonged power outage and the threat of civil unrest, it takes much less than a change in the Earth’s rotation to cause these. After all, the October gales in 1987 were sufficient to cause the first two.

Equally, when viewed as a science fiction or apocalypse story, the author seems to make a lot of specific predictions about what might happen without saying why. For example, we’re told that gravity becomes stronger as a consequence of ‘the slowing’, but it is far from clear that this would really happen. To a first approximation the force due to gravity is proportional to the planet’s mass and inversely proportional to the square of its radius. A change to the rotation wouldn’t directly affect either of these. While the centrifugal force, which partly counteracts gravity, would weaken, the overall effect would be small. The same effect currently makes objects slightly heavier at the poles, where incidentally gravity is also slightly stronger (because the earth is not a perfect sphere).

The comparison with the polar regions is also interesting for the reason that they naturally experience much longer periods of light and darkness. Ordinarily this is limited to a small number of research scientists who do so only for limited periods. The experiment hasn’t been tried on a large scale where it is the case that even limited periods of working night shifts, or working underground by artificial light, can disrupt sleep patterns. Ultimately I suspect there are limits to how much we could adapt and that neither adherence to a strict 24 hour cycle (for the clock timers), nor keeping daylight hours (the real timers) would be entirely satisfactory.

I accept that it is difficult to know the effects of a dramatic slowing; after all we can’t carry out any experiments to find out, and it would be too dangerous to try even if we could. However, this suggests that it is a poor scenario for a science fiction book, where some understanding of the underlying science is necessary. Perhaps contrasting the experiences of the majority with one of the ‘real time’ communities would have been more interesting?

In summary, this is an interesting idea for a book, and the writing is good, but the crossover between genres doesn’t work well. As written it is probably a coming of age story, aimed at a teenage audience, which is perfectly reasonable if unexceptional. The science fiction aspects, unfortunately, rely upon too many unknown details to be credible, making this a poor topic to choose for a novel. Overall, its a readable book but quite unexceptional.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler