Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
“I guess it is never what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different–unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.”
The Diary of A Young Girl for an apocalypse. Told from the first-person point of view of a southern California tween in the near future, The Age of Miracles pulls readers into Julia’s world and engages their emotions as the normal is stripped away with the rotational velocity of the earth. Well written.
“We were a different kind of Christian, the quiet kind, a breed embarrassed by the mention of miracles.”
The characters are realistic and varied–Christian, atheist, Mormon, Jew–except they’re all white. It’s understandable that Julia’s neighbors might look like her, but she attends a public school. A half-Hawaiian is mentioned, but no blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. Decreases credibility.
“Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real–whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy…. I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein–because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.” Flannery O’Conner
Walker quotes her approvingly in the appended material. Science fiction illustrates O’Conner’s dictum: you can have different laws of science, but they need to be correctly and consistently applied. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “willing suspension of disbelief” necessary for fiction to work. Readers and writers have a contract: the reader will pretend the story is true; the writer doesn’t abuse that willingness by blatantly false statements. Walker failed. The following list several of the areas where scientific or factual errors destroy what:
“In science, we made new sun dials to replace the ones we’d made the first week of school.” Why? Especially since the teacher will eventually side with those following the natural day and night schedule.
“Only later did we discover that the solar storm had wiped out all the cell phone satellites.” Discounting Iridium, there are no cell phone satellites. Cell phones work through the ubiquitous towers, which might also be wiped out by a severe solar storm.
“Every body in motion was pulled more forcefully to the ground.” No, decreasing rotational speed does not change gravity. Centrifugal force adds only 0.3% at the equator, which southern California is not.
“The slowing had mysteriously swelled the tides.” Nothing mysterious about that. In fact, giving the varying rate of deceleration, there should have been more wonky tides and tsunamis.
“The earth made its usual swing around the sun, its 400 billionth loop.” Really? The universe is estimated to be 14 billion years old.
“Dreamy speculation that the earth’s magnetic fields might somehow depend upon the steady rotation of the planet.” That this is “dreamy speculation” will be news to generations of physicists.
“Six astronauts remained stranded on the space station, their food supplies dwindling, ten thousand miles higher than the silk of these balloons.” The International Space Station orbits about 250 miles above the earth. (Please excuse the overuse of Wikipedia, I’m being lazy.)
We can, of course, make excuses that Julia wouldn’t know all this–my experience with internet-connected youth is that they know lots of facts about lots of things–but Walker should have known better and, by getting the facts right, helped the reader stay in the mood of her story. I quit reading more than once.
“We, the people, did not need more proof. We did not believe in spurious correlation. We rejected random chance. We knew the birds were dying because of the slowing.”
Which brings us to “gravity sickness.” This is Walker’s invention for the story. Julia admits not knowing what causes it, only how it affects those around her. That’s fine, except that its cause is the illogical increasing gravity cited above, but that doesn’t matter because she invented it to drive her story.
“The past is long, and the future is short.”
If you’re going to depend on ‘facts,’ I agree you should get them at least somewhere near right.
Which has kept me from writing more than one story: I’m a physicist, but too lazy to do the research just to get something small precisely right. And wrong is laughable.