Friday, March 27, 2015

Review:: The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

Title: The Age of Miracles
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Format: eBook
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

I can deal with books that are skeptical about science, and the way science is being used. I can deal with books with soft science, as long as they don't try to justify it. What I can't deal with is a book that gets all the science terribly wrong, then proceeds to go on an anti-science vendetta. Of course you think science is awful! You don't understand any of it. Spoilers in the review.

The Age of Miracles is the story of an 11-year-old girl who has the luck to start her coming of age in the middle of the apocalypse. See, for reasons scientists can't explain (scientists are completely useless in this entire book), the earth's rotation is slowing down. As one would guess, this causes bad things to happen. And yet, everyone's reactions (and the bad things that happen) seem totally off.

At first it seems fine. The reactions to hearing that our day suddenly gained a half an hour seem similar to other major disasters. There's the forgetfulness I, and so many others experienced, the day of 9/11. There's the need to be with family. The need for normalcy. The need to cut off fights before they start, at least for today.

There are comfort lies. There are the little things that get to you, when you know they shouldn't. There's the fear of not being able to do anything, and trying everything possible to have comfort in preparedness.

Now, I like it when disaster stories are set in California because dear God are so many of us ready for the apocalypse. When you never know if "the big one" will hit, you might as well be prepared. However, as I read on, it was very clear that Karen Thompson Walker is not a Californian. She lives in Iowa and was born in Miami. We were pretty prepared for disaster in Iowa, too, considering tornadoes. I would love to see more apocalypse stories set in Tornado Alley. But no, The Age of Miracles is set in such a stereotypical California it made me roll my eyes over and over.

Apparently they're in a coastal suburb (on the cheaper side of the hill that doesn't face the ocean), 95 miles from Hollywood. Their town has less than 1000 people in it. And yet, this town has such religious diversity. There's an Orthodox Jewish family. There's more than one Mormon family. There's a pack of Jehovah's Witnesses. And of course, there are your stereotypical New Age-y "Californians."

I'm not about to say that California isn't diverse. But what I can tell you is that SoCal suburbs with less than 1000 people in them do not have this kind of diversity in any way shape or form. If only that were the only issue.

Later in the book, as a form of ostracism for living in "real time" (we'll get to that later), the cops are tipped off that this hippy dippy family is growing pot in their house. They're arrested and never seen from again. Now, California may not have properly legalized marijuana, but considering how easy it is to get a medical card (and it has to be even easier now that everyone has insomnia...), this seems more than ridiculous. It's so easy to legally grow pot in California. The idea that the police would raid you for it is laughable.

Now yes, it's still not federally legal (and wasn't when this book was written), but it wasn't the feds busting them. And the hush-hush omg pot bits are just hilarious. Yup. Karen Thompson Walker has not really experienced California.

Then there's the whole bit where the weather's changing, and they're talking about never having experienced snow because they're beach-goers, sunlight kids. When I lived in SoCal, one of our favorite things to do were ski and beach days. See, there's mountains within driving distance that have plenty of snow. So what you do, is you go ski and then you go to the beach.

The idea that none of these SoCal kids had ever seen snow is just laughable.

Before I get to the bad science, which is really what has me miffed more than anything, I'd be remiss if I didn't go over how bad the writing is. Now, yes, the narrator is 11. Middle schoolers are known for a bit of the dramatic... But it's like someone picked up an 11-year-old's diary and cleaned it up to show how she really was just so aware of everything going on around her, so mature, and got everything right.

Basically, all the blemishes are gone. Julia never screws up. She knows everything.

Here are some choice passages:

"But I knew Michaela had stopped doing her homework earlier that year. She was developing a different set of skills. There was a lot to learn about the care of hair and skin. There was a proper way to hold a cigarette. A girl wasn't born knowing how to give a hand job. I let her see my homework whenever she asked."
 "This was the same box [kleenex box for questions] we had used on the day they separated the girls from the boys, and the nurse came to tell the girls about our futures. 'Something very special is going to happen to you,' she had said slowly, like a fortune teller reading palms. 'It comes from the Greek word for month, because it's going to happen once a month, just like the lunar cycle.' Only Tammy Smith and Michelle O'Connor had sat apart, shifting knowingly in their seats, their bodies already in tune with the moon."
Again, okay, these sound like things you could imagine from an 11-year-old, but it's too consistent. It's too appropriately flowery and purple, without the major flubs of "cerulean orbs" and actual angsting. And she's always just so poignant and deep and always getting everything right.

Gag me.

So, the fun part. The science.

The apocalypse is happening because the rotation of the earth is slowing. And yet, cell phones still work. Navigation is fine. The problem, apparently, is gravity.
"We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn't fly as far as they used to. Home-run htiters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Everything falling fell faster to the ground."
That's not an issue of gravity. That's ballistics. Gravity is fine. I can't help but giggle about how When Gravity Fails also failed to be about gravity, and was just as awful.

It takes almost a year for the satellites to have any issues. And then it's because of our magnetic field. Never mind that satellites are in geosynchronous orbit. The reason that they stay in orbit is because they are falling at the same rate as the Earth is moving out of the way. Needless to say, the Earth slowing down would cause some problems there.

So, the magnetic field. Clearly slowing our spin would cause issues with that too, considering the dynamo theory. But remember kids... that's just a theory. Like gravity.
"At the time of the slowing, little was known about the dynamo effect. More theory than fact, it was just an elegant mathematical guess that hovered like string theory at the crossroads of science and faith. Untested and untestable, the dynamo theory was a dreamy speculation that the earth's magnetic field might somehow depend on the steady rotation of the planet."
I guess it kind of makes sense that in this world, little is known about dynamo theory and it's more like faith because the scientists are absolutely completely useless. Everyone goes "Why is the earth's rotation slowing?" Scientists shrug. "Why are all the birds dying?" "Fuck if I know." "How will we bring home our astronauts?" "We can't predict how the slowing will affect re-entry. We forgot how to maths. No one be concerned about this. Also, we won't prepare you for the obvious inevitables because we're too damn useless. It's not like we could warn you about the radiation, weather changes, and food issues. Then we might be able to do something. Also, I feel the need to mention the bees disappearing."

I got really confused for a while because they kept talking about clocks being wrong. And because the science was so bad, I figured she thought that time itself was being screwed up. As if it's not an artificial measurement and the clocks will be fine. Nope. People decided that they had to orient themselves around daylight. In fact, it takes two weeks for the world's governments to come out with a statement saying for the sake of everything, we should try staying on a 24-hour cycle.

But in 'murrca you can't tell people what to do. And because it's natural and something-something the author doesn't understand how circadian rhythms work, people feel the need to live on "real time" where they sleep whenever it's dark (and apparently the whole dark period because that's what we do on our 24-hour cycle, right?) and only are active during the day. But these people are hippy dippy and we have to run them out of town. All the while, you can tell where the author's thoughts really lie.

There's this gross obsession with naturalism. It's important for her to remark how chemotherapy is injecting toxic chemicals into your blood. How we're overtaking anti-depressants. How we're no longer in tune with nature. We never find out why the Earth's rotation started slowing, but I get the feeling that it's supposed to be some kind of divine retribution for not caring for the Earth. Not that it's explicit, but my goodness.

It's just so unbelievable to me that people would just abandon their 24-hour clock cycle immediately upon the days getting longer. Now granted, I initially find this unbelievable because anyone with two brain cells can tell the world is ending and going about our day as if very little is happening and everything will be fine means that there is something wrong with us. But also, since when have we been tied to sunrise as wake time and sunset as sleep time? We've been using artificial sources of light for ages, whether fire or lamps or light bulbs.

I mean, we already deal with Daylight Savings Time, which makes absolutely no sense and screws with our internal and physical clocks.

All things said, though, as a person who does not have a standard sleep cycle in any sense of the word, I may not be the right person to comment on this. Sleeping during the day doesn't bother me. I don't keep to this mystical "real time." Somehow, I do okay.

Not only does this book again and again not have basic understanding of physics, there's this shoe-horned romance plot tossed in there (oh, and the boy probably dies of gravity syndrome which he went to Mexico to treat) and the girl loses all of her friends and life is so hard. But we're still alive after 12 years of this because that's realistic. That's why she can tell this story.


We're still kicking in this story, 12 years after losing our magnetic field. You know, that thing that helps us keep our atmosphere from being ripped away by the sun?


  1. I have this horrible morbid curiosity thing going on because this keeps popping up in recommendations on my subscription apps...

    1. I am sure there are much better things you could do that involve morbid curiosity than read this book.