The Age of Miracles: A different take on dystopia

“We didn’t notice it right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath the skin.”

After working my way through the mother of all fantasy books this fall, followed by a holiday season spent up to my elbows in novels of manners, I decided to close out 2012 with something a little more contemporary, a little more realistic, a little more in “The Now.” However, a quick perusal of my Goodreads feed shifted my focus and piqued my interest in a book addressing the question: “What If…?”

In The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker’s1 debut) we hear from Julia, a young woman from Southern California who came of age when “the slowing” began–the slowing of the earth’s rotation, that is.

As Julia tells us—speaking as an adult looking back on the months leading up to her 12th birthday—no one notices the slowing at first. She explains, “We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath the skin.” But as the lengthening of each day (and night) becomes more and more obvious, panic slowly sets in. Families build stockpiles of canned goods and water, fearing that the extended periods of darkness will destroy the world’s food supply. Those who perceive the slowing as a sure sign of The End Times leave their homes to be with family in different parts of the world or, in more extreme cases, join up with like-minded folks to ready themselves for the apocalypse. Changes in Earth’s gravity and temperature lead to crazy weather2, birds falling from the sky, and whales washing up on the beaches.3 Many people (including Julia’s mother) come down with a mysterious and debilitating illness simply called “The Sickness.” Meanwhile, a presidential decree for all United States citizens to continue observing a 24-hour day pits “clock-timers” against “real-timers,” the small but mighty minority choosing to follow nature’s new patterns of light and dark.

Happening alongside all of these “bigger” events is…life–Julia’s life, specifically. She goes to school; she struggles to get along with her parents; she attempts to navigate the choppy water of preteen girl dynamics; she falls in love with a boy. As Julia puts it, “This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed4 from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.” Later she says, “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade. And so, in spite of everything, that year was also the year of the dance party.”

The juxtaposition of Earth’s slowing and the frenetic changes of adolescence create an interesting tension in the book. But through Julia’s voice, Walker intertwines “the global” and “the personal” in such a way that you don’t feel one is more important than the other. And besides, for me, that’s what makes dystopian stories stick: the individual’s facing an uncertain but unavoidable future, not just the forces that have shaken things up.5

Now if you’re like me, when you hear the phrase “dystopian literature”, you think of things like suffering, violence, mass conformity under an oppressive government that a team of scrappy underdogs will eventually overthrow—all that good stuff The Hunger Games taught a new generation of readers to know and love. The Age of Miracles does fit into the dystopian genre, but its tone and pacing set it apart. While other examples of dystopian literature—particularly young adult dystopian literature, which I think this book is—rely on high drama and a strong sense of urgency (everything is a matter of life and death), The Age of Miracles is subtler, more relatable…and maybe a bit sadder. Its conflict isn’t due to a war or one group strong-arming another. They’re facing a natural disaster, but a slow one—and no one can figure out why it’s happening or do anything about it. Fittingly, Walker’s simple and often beautiful6 prose moves at calmer, slower pace more akin to a standard novel rather than a work of young adult adventure/dystopian fiction or sci-fi; it almost meanders at times.

All of this works towards making this book sort of an odd duck. It definitely qualifies as young adult fiction7, but it by no means is for teens only. It’s not sci-fi, but it’s not not sci-fi either. It is a dystopian story, but it’s not your typical dystopian story. When it comes down to it, The Age of Miracles is really a literary novel with a science-based plot device told from the perspective of a young adult. A bit of a hodgepodge, yes, but one with broad appeal. And no matter your preferred genre, I’m certain Julia will stick with you for a while. Her story has that heartbreakingly sad-but-hopeful quality that’s pretty hard to shake.

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  1. Here’s a fun fact: Random House reportedly paid Walker (a former editor for Simon & Schuster) ONE MILLION DOLLARS for the rights to this book. Not a bad start to a new career, I’d say. 
  2. A not-at-all-subtle reference to global warming, I’m sure. 
  3. I have no idea if any of these things would actually happen if the earth slowed down as I am not wise in the ways of science. I also don’t really care. But! if you do and think this is all a bunch of baloney, please feel free to explain away in the comments. 
  4. I promise, Walker does branch out beyond the “blooming” metaphor. This was a total coincidence. 
  5. I mean, you can’t have The Hunger Games without Katniss or The Giver without Jonas or Battlestar Galactica without…every single character on Battlestar Galactica
  6. Despite her overly enthusiastic use of similes. Example: “The Ferris wheel stood only partially erect: A single red bucket dangling from a single spoke like the last fruit of summer, or like autumn’s final leaf.” Fruit or a leaf? Pick one, Walker. 
  7. FYI, there is one use of the F-word and a couple instances of underage drinking. If I’m being conservative with age recommendations, I’d say save it for your 9th grader. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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