Climate-change anxiety hovers over the narrative of The Age Of Miracles. A few years into the future, the Earth inexplicably begins slowing its rotation, making each day several minutes longer. Horror slowly builds, day-by-day, as the characters realize they have no control of what happens.
The story is told through the eyes of Julia, a middle-schooler undergoing a conventional coming-of-age story in a California suburb. She makes and loses friends, finds her first crush and first love, tries to make the soccer team, and navigates her parents’ wobbly marriage. She just happens to be doing all that at the end of the world. The narrow focus on a powerless girl during world-shattering events does run the risk of making the story too personal at the expense of larger events. But first-time author Karen Thompson Walker transcends this potential problem marvelously by using the conceit of Julia writing about her experiences of the first year of the slowing. Returning to those events once she’s a little older, she contextualizes and foreshadows, and describes the public pronouncements of intellectuals, scientists, and the government, successfully incorporating the planet’s story with her own.
The Age Of Miracles doesn’t tell a happy story for the planet. Walker has extrapolated the potential science of such a slowing: animals lose their senses and die out, plants can’t survive when the nights get too long, the ocean currents slow and the weather changes drastically, and even the Earth’s magnetic shield cracks, exposing its surface to dangerous solar radiation. But Walker also analyzes potential societal changes, building tension between the people who try to maintain a facade of normal time-keeping and living, and the people who want to adapt to the new schedule, a split which divides both the nation and Julia’s neighborhood.
The moments where Julia’s story intersects with the planet’s are what makes The Age Of Miracles special. She and her crush go on a date to watch, and help, dozens of beached whales. They find love over discussions of whether they’d prefer to die of thirst or starvation. Julia makes awkward small talk with her father, who says she may make the soccer team next year, while knowing there’s unlikely to be such a team—there isn’t even grass in their yard anymore.
The Age Of Miracles is beautifully written, conveying Julia’s personal struggles and her growing understanding of life as an adult via simple, precise prose in a formal structure. This makes the novel a strong work of literary fiction. But the creeping sense of dread throughout, the utter plausibility of the slow collapse, serving as a metaphor for the worst possibilities of climate change, is what makes The Age Of Miracles fantastic science fiction. Its people are just too helpless and small to change the trajectory of the collapse. In the end, all they can do is try to adapt, and all they know how to do is survive.