20 July 2012

The Age of Miracles

I like post-apocalyptic fiction.  In theory.

Photo courtesy chudo.sveta, Flickr Creative Commons.
A few weeks ago I heard Karen Thompson Walker interviewed on NPR about her debut novel, The Age of Miracles, in which the Earth’s rotation progressively slows.  Little do we realize that all life is dependent on that consistent 24-hour day.  At 26 hours it’s disruptive but not awful; at 46 hours, it’s quite a lot worse.  When the day is 60 hours long… and longer… it is toxic to all life on Earth.  The light is toxic, and so is the darkness. 

In coastal California, Julia is 11.  She's a lonely, kind of unpopular, upper-middle-class sixth grader, complete with the fickle girlfriends, the boy you’re too shy to talk to, life on the bus, the soccer field, the school commons. Even as the world is ending, Julia frets about bras, makeup, kissing, parties.  Her parents' fraying marriage, her aging grandfather. 
I read Miracles in less than 24 hours, and when I finished it around midnight last night – I was rattled.  I was afraid of the dark.

Since reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road several years ago, I can’t help comparing every other piece of post-apocalyptic fiction against it.  It is one of the best - and most terrifying - books I’ve ever read.  I chose not to see the movie. 

We live in a tenuous peace.  When society fractures, then crumbles, the most cruel and powerful men quickly gain the upper hand.  I believe McCarthy’s pessimistic scenario is the most likely one.

Conversely, Walker’s "Slow Earth" doesn’t seem nearly chaotic enough.  There are a handful of people who panic, others who high-tail it for the wilderness, but for the most part, life continues almost as usual.  As normal as possible, for as long as possible.

Julia's life is simply very safe; she is genuinely insulated from the chaos unfolding elsewhere because her family is "comfortable." Her parents (a doctor & a teacher) can stockpile nutritious food, buy a custom greenhouse complete with growlights, sheathe their home in steel to protect from solar radiation.  They are never threatened by crime. 

And then the narrative ends, before things get that bad.  Maybe mass human extinction was too gruesome for Walker (or maybe she's hoping NOT to freak out younger readers).

Would MY family be able to survive The Slowing? Wouldn't we all like to believe that we could? 

In the beginning we’d get along better than many others.  We’re frugal and creative.  But we're on the grid, and these systems are fragile.  Water, electricity, natural gas and communications would founder much sooner in reality than they do in The Age of Miracles.  Public safety, healthcare, and food would be scarce and costly.  A black market would develop.  There would be MUCH more violence and unrest than in Miracles.  People would become desperate very quickly - the television series The Colony illustrates this very well.  And didn't we see a glimpse of it during New York City Blackout of 1977 (massive looting and destruction)? Or during Katrina?

In a deteriorating economy, only the very rich, with liquid wealth or tradeable goods, would be able to transform their home into the necessary fortress.  The sad truth is that we would be vulnerable.  Not totally unprepared or helpless, but not rich enough to build a bunker.  A few assets that we wouldn't have enough firepower to protect.  How long could we really hope to stave off fearless, desperate marauders?

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a significant part of 20th & 21st century literature, and I’ve read a considerable number included on the GoodReads list.   The Age of Miracles, a much softer version of the end of the world, is enough to give me the willies.  But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to read more. 

Remember, the Mayan Apocalypse is coming!  Only 153 shopping days until December 20, 2012!


  1. I've not read the books you mention here, but am going to get them. Also, I looked up both the movie and the book The Road. Turns out that they used the actual dialog from the book because the director was so in love with the book he didn't want to change it. Imagine that.

  2. The dialog in The Road is absolutely perfect.

    Wil, let me know when/if you read The Road. Please don't despair.... but it's quite horrifying. I'm right around the corner if you need me! :-)

    1. Things will be slowing down for me after October and I plan on getting a lot of reading done. I will definitely read "The Road." However, I'll probably read "Forever" again first. Just LOVE that book.

  3. I will be giving both of these a "to-read" notation. Will you come protect & comfort me!??