Paul Di Filippo reviews Karen Thompson Walker
Let us clear up any misapprehensions from the outset. Karen Walker’s debut novel is not science fiction as that genre is consensually defined. It’s a millenarian fable, and must be judged on its own terms.
But having said that, the suspicion of a problem still lingers. Perhaps Walker thought she was writing science fiction, and not a fable. If so, then she would certainly deserve some criticism and joshing for a tale that replicates the finest scientific rigor of Toho Studios, Roger Corman, Vargo Statten and Harry Stephen Keeler combined.
Walker’s premise is this. The Earth’s rotation is inexplicably slowing. This has the counter-intuitive (to say the least) effect of changing the baseline parameters of gravity and inertia. A new disease dubbed “gravity-sickness” becomes widespread. Tides are higher. At first, all the extra minutes in each day pile up at night, and are not evenly distributed across the whole light-dark cycle as seasonally determined by the planet’s axial tilt. Furthermore—
But why go on? This is obviously not a book that will soon be employed in Physics and Astronomy 101 classes.
Now, if we are honest and admit it, much of classic hardcore SF features magical thinking and hand-waving and imposture that would earn snorts from any real scientist. But there’s an inarguable, perceptible difference somehow, if only of authorial intention and readerly reaction. Verisimilitude is achieved in an approved, time-tested manner that pays tribute to the reader’s commonsense and willingness to be deceived in at least a quasi-scientific manner. Nothing illustrates the difference between Walker’s blithely frisson-seeking approach and the true-gen SF methodology than to compare her book briefly to Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin.
From the Wikipedia page about Spin: “Set in the near future, Spin begins with the sudden and mysterious enveloping of the Earth in an artificial membrane that blocks out the sky, including the stars and moon. The membrane selectively filters incoming electromagnetic radiation, blocking out the view of anything beyond minimal low Earth orbit. However, the membrane displays a faux-sun on its inner surface, maintaining a relatively normal day-night cycle for the inhabitants of Earth.”
How utterly ridiculous and impossible this cosmological catastrophe sounds on the surface. A much bigger whale to swallow than Walker’s simple alteration. Yet I daresay that nearly every fannish reader of Spin bought the premise utterly, thanks to the ineffable naturalism and rationalist sensibilities of Wilson’s presentation—and also the way his characters reacted.
But, I would argue, Walker is simply not interested in taking this approach, which is why I deem her debut novel a mildly successful fable rather than a failed SF novel. Ultimately, we should not be misled by any superficial similarities between Age of Miracles and “real SF.” That would result in a total misreading of this well-done book.
A key giveaway is the lack of specificity almost from page one. Our point-of-view narrator is a teenager named Julia (although she’s recounting this from years afterwards when she presumably has adult sensibilities and intellect.) Describing the global situation when the slowing struck, she says, “Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries.” The official announcement of the cataclysm features “a shy bearded scientist at a hastily arranged press conference.” It’s all as deliberately nebulous as a dream, even taking into account notorious adolescent brain quirks.
Here’s how, oh, Greg Benford would have written those sentences. (Note: real Greg Benford not consulted!) “That year the public’s attention was distracted from the US invasion of Argentina by a hastily arranged press conference at CalTech, called by Dr. Hunko McHollywood, fresh from his reception of the Nobel Prize in Awesomeness.”
But none of this fact-buttressed specificity would jibe with Walker’s intentions, which are best understood in Ballardian terms. Yes, Walker is channeling the Sage of Shepperton, not John Wyndham. Just as Ballard—in his quartet of early disaster novels, The Wind from Nowhere, The Burning World, The Drowned World and The Crystal World—explored the psychogeography of inner space when people were cut loose from convention and social norms, conjuring up vivid surreal tableaux, so too is Walker keen on presenting a Jungian landscape of extroverted ideospasms. Except that Walker’s chosen vehicle for her dreamtime walkabout is not some young or middle-aged guy who thinks too much, but a teenage girl who feels too deeply. Hence the appropriate emphasis on training bras rather than drained swimming pools.
Walker’s main narrative, aside from a big-leap-forward concluding chapter, takes place in just a single year, when Julia occupies sixth grade. And guess what? “This was middle school, the age of miracles….” No author could more explicitly spell out that she was more concerned with the microcosm of Julia’s life in these bizarre circumstances than with the actual improbable celestial mechanics and the world at large. So the bulk of the book concerns Julia’s budding romances and rivalries, her relations to her parents and beloved grandfather and teachers.
But this is not to preclude some stunning moments assimilated by Julia’s sharp eye. For instance, a panic-abandoned carnival is pure poetry. “The roller coasters stood half built, colored skeletons in the wind. The log ride, incomplete, was a suicide leap. The Ferris wheel stood only partially erect. A single red bucket dangled from a single spoke like the last fruit of summer, or like autumn’s final leaf.” Likewise, the new desert city of Circadia, where the “real-timers” congregate, is a tangible, otherworldly place, kind of like Burning Man for the End Times.
So despite any gaps in logic or plausibility, Walker’s book succeeds as a potent catalogue of barely constrained derangements, a surreal Boschian triptych, an exercise in imagining how average minds would react with confusion and denial, rage and apathy, to an impossible-to-survive situation.
One final comparison to a “real SF” story might be instructive. Fritz Leiber’s classic “A Pail of Air” features a young lad struggling to persist amid global, cosmically deracinated conditions equally dire, and with arguably less potential for survival. But the atmosphere of proactive hope in Leiber’s piece is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Julia’s existential anomie. After all, viewed objectively, Julia’s Earth should settle down to the classic Mercury Brightside/Darkside scenario, affording some heroic band of humans a living under whatever impoverished conditions. But Julia’s sensibilities—and Walker’s—just don’t go there, any more than Ballard’s did. Rather, their catastrophes are always embraced, however warily, as just what we probably deserve.
One thought on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Karen Thompson Walker”
Paul, I loved The Age of Miracles. The storytelling and writing blows away most genre SF. And I wouldn’t cast stones at the science in literary science fiction, because the science of genre science fiction is all glass housing.
I believe slowing of the Earth’s rotation in The Age of Miracles is a metaphor for global warming. This novel is about the young facing a horrible future. At that level, this novel is very realistic.