The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker–A Powerful Literary Science Fiction Novel

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker came out June 26th and it’s already getting tremendous press.

 

 

I listened to the audio edition with pitch-perfect narration by Emily Janice Card.  The Age of Miracles is a science fiction novel told in first person by eleven-year-old Julia, so it feels like another science fiction YA novel, but it’s not marketed as either as SF or YA, and it’s far from another hit young adult novel for adults.  It’s a literary novel about a young girl witnessing the Earth undergoing a catastrophic change called “the slowing.”  Earth begins to slow its spin.  Before the novel is over the Earth’s day is over twice as long.

Karen_Thompson_Walker_Age_of_Miracles

As soon as I saw the announcement for this book I knew I had to read it.  If you loved The Lovely Bones or The Secret Life of Bees, there’s a good chance you’ll love The Age of Miracles.  However, if you loved Earth Abides, The Day of the Triffids, Alas, Babylon, there’s also a good chance you’ll love this novel.  If you ever wished Catcher in the Rye had been science fiction, then this book is for you.  When The Age of Miracles is pitched to movie producers I’m sure they’ll summarize it like this:  coming of age in the apocalypse.

The editorial reviews collected at Amazon.com rave about this book.  The customer reviews are a bit mixed, with most people loving it, and a few people complaining, some rather bitterly.  A few complainers weren’t expecting a YA novel.  Other complainers object to the science.  I too had trouble with some of the science, but I think Karen Thompson Walker is right in that we’d weigh more if the Earth’s spin slowed.  For those people objecting to her science, just read “If the Earth Stood Still” and you’ll realize Thompson is up on the details.

But I’m not sure the details of the science are important to this story – science fiction has often been wrong about science.  The Age of Miracles is an allegory about how nature turns against us and how we respond.

The Age of Miracles is more literary than YA – there are no teenagers fighting to the death on television.  It’s more literary than science fiction, it’s not about heroic astronauts trying to save the world.  The narrator is telling her story from years later, after the events, so we know she survives.  The Age of Miracles is a very simple tale, a coming of age story set against our world falling apart.

The defining issue with any end-of-the-world novel is how people react.  I can’t help believe that the slowing is a metaphor for global warming, but don’t let that stop you from reading The Age of Miracles if you’re on the wrong side of that political question. The Age of Miracles is science fiction at its best because it’s all about sense of wonder.  I’ve always found tremendous sense of wonder in end of the world novels.  These novels aren’t predicting gloom and doom, but exploring how people face the immensity of reality.

Julia is just an eleven-year-old kid that has a mother and father, a few friends, a music teacher, and a sheltered life where’s she shy and timid, but like most kids her age, wants to fit in.  Half of The Age of Miracles is about Julie coping with normal life.  The other half is about coping with a world going through a lot of scary changes.  The people in this story decide to fight their fears by leading ordinary lives.  This is not a post-apocalyptic novel with Mad Max type warriors.  This is the end of the world coming to suburbia, soccer moms and mini-vans.

Most of the classic end of the world SF novels came from the cold war era.  The Age of Miracles is maybe what J. G. Ballard would have written about the Internet Age facing the apocalypse if he was channeling Harper Lee.

End of the world novels usually draw the reader in by getting them to imagine what they would do in the same situation.  The Age of Miracles is different.  I’m 60, and I’m being asked to imagine how an 11 year-old would see things.  It’s a powerful motif.  I can’t help but wonder how young people feel today growing up and imagining what global warming will bring.

In the past decade there have been a number of literary novels that used science fictional plots and they have been very successful.  In fact, they have generally kicked genre butt.  Stories like The Road, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Sparrow brought deep characterization and a sense of realism to very far out ideas.  I can’t help but wonder if would-be literary writers haven’t noticed that pairing literary style with the fantastic sells, especially if it also appeals to both the YA and adult readers.

I can only speculate why Karen Thompson Walker wrote The Age of Miracles, but whether intentionally or by accident, she’s hit on a perfect combination of literary and science fiction styles.  Is Ms. Walker a science fiction reader trained in a MFA program?  Or is she a literary writer influenced by all the science fiction in our society.  There’s a good chance that the science fiction genre played no part in influencing the writing of her story.  Did George Orwell need to read SF before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four?  We could assume Karen Thompson Walker is like Michael Chabon and attempts to live in both the literary and SF genre worlds.

Maybe Ms. Thompson is even more savvy than that.  Maybe she wanted to write about global warming and knew the topic would turn off many readers, so she developed the slowing as a stand-in.  If she did, it will be just as effective for making people think about our future.

I bet there will be a lot of literary and science fiction writers wishing they had written The Age of Miracles.  I’m sure it’s going to spawn a lot of imitators.

JWH – 7/5/12

5 thoughts on “The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker–A Powerful Literary Science Fiction Novel

  1. This sounds like an interesting story. I like the idea that she uses the slowing of the Earth as the story baseline vs. something like climate change or another topic that is heavily debated today. This will serve to put readers at ease somewhat. The importance of this is illustrated in the comments you mention. I have no doubt that had she used climate change, ozone deterioration, etc., the attacks would be even more pronounced. So she was smart in this approach and it will likely result in a higher number of book sales. Sounds like an interesting read Jim. Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading a copy soon.

  2. Jim, calling this a ‘literary’ book certainly doesn’t make it appealing to me! :) And the science does matter to me – at least, that it not be so ridiculous that I lose my suspension of disbelief.

    On the other hand, it does sound interesting. I wonder, though – why does the slowing of the Earth cause such a catastrophe? I’ve never thought about it, since it’s certainly nothing I’d expect to happen.

    In fact, I don’t know how that could happen, not over a human lifetime, since the spinning Earth has an incredible inertia which would have to be overcome. So right off the bat, this is really straining my suspension of disbelief.

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