DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Weather stories, as we've seen over the past week, are inherently gripping. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says debut novelist Karen Thompson Walker has written a doozy.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: "The Age of Miracles" is literary fiction, but it spins out the same kind of what if? disaster plot that distinguishes many a classic sci-fi movie. Too bad the title "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was already taken, because it really would have been the perfect title for Thompson's novel.
Our main character here is named Julia and, though she's now in her 20s, most of her narration is retrospective, taking us back to her 11-year-old self, the year everyday life fell apart. At first, Julia tells us, nobody noticed the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
That so-called extra time is caused by the fact that the Earth's rotation is growing more and more sluggish. When scientific experts finally do go public to acknowledge the mysterious change, they call it the slowing. Daytime stretches first by minutes, then hours, and then days. So, too, does nighttime.
After the slowing is officially acknowledged, there's an immediate run on canned food and water, and people begin building underground survival shelters. Birds fall from the sky, and whales wash up on beaches, their GPS systems all messed up by the changes in gravity and temperature.
Apocalyptic cults flourish, and a rift widens between those folks called real-timers, who stubbornly decide to live by the extended rhythms of sunrise and sunset, and the majority of Americans, who obey the president's orders to carry on in semi-denial and stick to the 24-hour clock.
As Julia recalls: We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night. That's only a sampling of the believable climate change catastrophes that Walker conjures up. Although "The Age of Miracles" itself slows somewhat toward its very end, Walker mostly manages to keep the calamities coming.
Just as inspired as her plot is Walker's decision to make the adolescent Julia her main narrator. Both the Earth's environment and young Julia are in the throes of seismic upheaval.
You would expect that the most ominous words in this novel would be the slowing, but they're not; the most ominous words - spoken by preteen Julia - are these: No force on Earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade. And so, in spite of everything, that year was also the year of the dance party.
Julia is not the kind of glossy girl who's comfortable strutting her stuff at these boy-girl parties. Instead, she's in the awkward wise child mode of beloved outsider characters like Scout and Holden Caulfield and Frankie Adams in "The Member of the Wedding."
She's sensitive enough to take note of the emotional climate changes around her. The greater drag of gravity, Julia says, disrupted certain subtler trajectories; the tracks of friendships, for example, the paths toward and away from love. Sure, the natural world may be melting, but every bit as inexplicable and terrifying is the scene where Julia's longtime best girlfriend turns into a popular pod person and freezes her out at recess one day.
The best sci-fi always contains a strong strain of melancholy. Think, for instance, of the twilit ending of H.G. Wells' masterpiece, "The Time Machine." Wells called his sci-fi stories scientific romances, and that's an apt term for Walker's novel, as well. "The Age of Miracles" is a pensive page-turner that meditates on loss and the fragility of both our planetary and personal ecosystems.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker.
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DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show @freshair.npr.org. Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies.