Wednesday 13 June 2012

Slowly Spinning to a Stop

US edition: Random House
Science fiction tends to have as its characters the most important people in the world: they’re the scientists who make the big discovery, the heroes who save the universe, the time travellers who change history, the survivors of apocalypse who build a new world from the ruins. This is reasonable enough: if a good working definition of science fiction is that it changes something about the world or the universe, and then logically pursues the consequences, then it makes sense to have as your heroes and villains the people who are central to that change.

But there’s another kind of science fiction which can be extremely powerful, and it’s something not many writers have explored. It takes a more domestic view, one where the world has been changed, and where the story is that of completely ordinary people living their lives in that world, trying to make a go of it. A particularly powerful example from a couple of years ago is I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh. Another is about to be published: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

“We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath the skin.”
UK edition: Simon & Schuster

Miracles’s central conceit is an unlikely one—the Earth’s rotation suddenly starts to slow, dramatically increasing the length of day and night. (Walker was inspired by the fact that the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake slowed the Earth’s rotation by a fraction of a second.) Days lengthen by minutes, then hours, then double and triple in length.

“By the end of November, our days had stretched to forty hours.”

Society begins to mutate and fail, ecosystems begin to crash, and the cyclic patterns the human brain is used to, and relies on, are disrupted further and further. This would make for an elegant disaster novel on its own. But Walker has something else in mind. The Age of Miracles is in many ways a classic coming-of-age novel, about a teenaged girl trying not to lose her friends, to deal with crushes, to cope with her parents and her changing body. It’s just that she has to do all of this in a world that is slowly, inexorably changing and falling apart.

Teenagers are famously bad at clearly imagining their futures, and frequently take the sort of risks only people who feel immortal would take. Even in the face of global cataclysm, how much would that change? If you have trouble thinking of what to do when you grow up, how much does it matter if you’re not sure if you—or anyone else—will actually make it to a few more birthdays? Elegaic and bleak, Walker’s novel (her first) is finely written and very compelling.

A heartening quantity of excellent science fiction has been written recently by writers who are not normally seen as SF writers, such as Colson Whitehead, Ben Marcus, Julie Myerson and Cormac McCarthy. That almost all of these works have been apocalyptic in nature is both intriguing and, to a troubled devourer of end-of-the-world stories like myself (see here  and, indeed, all of these posts). Even if most of the readers of these books refuse to see them as science fiction, not wanting to find themselves in that particular literary ghetto, it’s heartening to see writers like Walker crossing genre boundaries with such aplomb, and expanding the world for their readers—even if they take them into some very dark places.

This also leads to cover designs that try their damnedest not to look like covers for SF books: see the two examples here. I have no problem with that--many SF covers are awful, after all--but it would be nice to think that the motive was aesthetic rather than literary gtenre snobbery.

[For more information on the physics of what might happen if the Earth were to stop rotating, see here.]

1 comment:

Squid Kid said...

This seems like a really interesting book that I wanna get soon! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this.