Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker

One of my friends recommended this book after she picked up her teenage daughter’s copy and was unable to put it down. The story’s premise is simple: for unknown reasons, the earth’s rotation is slowing down. But the novel isn’t really about the sci-fi fallout of this premise. It’s about how human beings react when our lives are turned upside-down. It’s about learning to accept a life that’s not the way it used to be, and never will be that way again. It’s about our resistance to changing cherished habits, and about the pain of changing relationships. I read it in two days, and can’t stop thinking about it.

The way the slowing begins is subtle, a barely noticeable lengthening of each day. What difference could it possibly make to most people’s lives? As time goes on, as the change becomes more obvious, we begin to realize that everything in the universe is connected. Birds begin to fall from the sky, disoriented, and then to die off. Plants grow here and not there, then fail to grow anywhere. Magnetic fields shift. Weather patterns become bizarre.

At first, human beings struggle to prove themselves adaptable. We reset our clocks, gamely keeping up our usual daily routines. School and work schedules are maintained. We must get used to days that are disconnected from the rising and setting of the sun. Clock time and sun time bear no relation to each other.

In a development that says something disturbing about humanity, society is fractured across a self-made gulf, as half the population clings to the sun, the other half to the clock. Each side sees themselves as adapting in the only realistic way, and considers the other side blind and foolish.  Those who live on “Real Time” are criticized by the clock-timers as hippies, floating lazily through 48-hour days and nights. Those who live on clock time are called uptight conformists by the real-timers. Yet in the end, both ways of life prove unsustainable. The dispute is a waste of the rapidly waning good time left on a slowing planet, a waste of the last days of friendships that were wrecked by nonsense which in hindsight didn’t matter.

In the end, people must accept that change is irreversible, that life will never go back to the way it was before. As the remaining people hunker down in an isolatingly hostile environment, friends are separated without goodbyes as circumstances carry people away from each other. Yet even while actual community life is being curtailed, the sense that we are all one community becomes stronger. The planet has become so fragile that every action by one person will impact the whole. People who don’t know each other, who now may never know each other, are mutually responsible for sustainability. At the same time, the few personal relationships that do remain become more precious. Within each little household circle, people cling to the companionship of each other, not only for physical survival, but for emotional and mental support. Each human being has become irreplaceable.

I didn’t finish this book feeling depressed, as dystopian science fiction usually leaves me feeling. Perhaps the suggestion that the slowing may eventually run its course and settle somewhere gives us a kind of hope that the human race isn’t doomed. Yet, even if it never gets worse, the damage is already done. The humans living in this irrevocably changed world will tell stories of birds and trees and whales to future generations as myths of a long-forgotten Eden. The young girl narrating the book hopes that what she personally remembers will become a general human memory that will outlive her. The unquenchability of hope, even in circumstances where it’s impossible to see the way forward, was my final impression from the book.