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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I'm Reading: 2 Different Views of the Apocalypse: The Age of Miracles and The Dog Stars

Here is a "two-fer" of two of 2012's best reviewed debut novels; in fact, both were in Amazon's top 25 of 2012, and both have to do with an apocalyptic scenario.

I first heard about Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel, The Age of Miracles at the PLA Conference back in March of 2012.  What got my interest piqued was the set-up, so that's what I will start with here.

This novel is set in a near future in which the Earth's daily rotation begins to slow, gradually, so the days and nights each go on for longer and longer.  There is no end in sight here either.  The rotation slows a little more each day, so the end of the Earth is on the horizon, but just how long until the end, no one knows.

Our entry into this world is through the eyes of Julia, an CA resident, who is 11 years old when the slowing begins.  However, it is very important to note that the narration is all in the past tense.  Julia is telling us about the first year of the slowing from a vantage point of little over a decade later. This has 3 distinct effects on the narrative.

  1. We know that Julia and the Earth itself are going to make it through the initial days of the crisis.  So we are not just waiting for the world to end while we are reading. 
  2. Since this story is a recollection you lose the annoying too precocious for a kid problem of many books with a child's point of view.  In this case, Julia is an adult looking back on that pivotal year.  She can say things like, I didn't know it then but it was the last time I would ever eat grapes, with a sense of wistfulness and loss that she has gained with the passage of time.
  3. [And this is the most important distinction in terms of whether or not you will enjoy this book.] Julia's recollections of the slowing as an 11 year old are very personal and locally focused.  She comments on the different factions that emerge--those who want to keep clock time versus those who want to keep time with the cycles of day and night.  She notes when the wheat threshold was passed, meaning growing food naturally became impossible due to the large time periods of darkness.  But she does not spend a lot of time contemplating the socio-economic or political implications of these things.  She talks about them as they effect her.  Also, on top of the slowing, Julia is also concerned with her friendships, parents' crumbling relationship, and her first love.  11 is already "an age of miracles," and the slowing only puts a spotlight on this key year in a child's growth.
This narration is one of the key appeals of the book.  But why else would you read The Age of Miracles?

The descriptions of the slowing and all of its ramifications are fascinating and frightening.  Julia gives us an account of how long the stretches of all sun and all dark are.  She talks about how people try to cope, how basic life has to change, but how some things stay the same. Thompson did some research on what would happen if the Earth's rotation did begin to slow, but she admits in the notes that she took many liberties here.  However, it doesn't matter, the world she has created in this novel is compellingly real.  Because it is based in science and not the supernatural (like zombies), and because it was a gradual apocalypse, it all felt like it could happen.

Julia is the most well rounded character here, but there are solid secondary characters.  I do have to say her Mom and Dad seemed a bit stereotypical to me, but then again, we are seeing them through her 23 year old eyes, recalling her memories from when she was 11, so that could be how she saw them.  Thinking back now to my tween years, I really didn't think of my parents as people, so if I had to describe them, they would be a bit of a rough sketch too.

Please note, if you are looking for an explanation as to why the slowing started or how it will end, you will not get it here.  This novel has a completely open ending that draws no conclusion and provides no answers.  It is simply Julia's statement that she was there, lived through it, and is trying to keep living her life in a way that is useful and adds to society for as long as that will continue.  She will not and does not dwell on the catastrophe, she simply lives each day to its fullest.

Overall, I was captivated by the book, the setting, and Julia.  She had the fresh, innocent eyes to take this great change in and give it back to us, the readers, in a compelling and intriguing narrative.

Three Words That Describe This Book: ecological disaster, coming of age, captivating.

Readalikes:  The Age of Miracles reminded me of The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.  Both look at a type of apocalyptic event that does not have an explanation and looks at how people deal on a micro-level. Click here for my full review of The Leftovers.

The Age of Miracles also reminded me of The Parable of the Sower series by Octavia Butler which takes place in a dystopian, near future CA, and follows a teenager.  

For non-science fiction, The Age of Miracles also reminded me of The Good Thief and anything by John Green.  Click here, here, and here to see why.

For a completely different view of a near future dystopia in both tone and writing style, there is The Dog Stars by long time outdoors, nonfiction writer, but first time novelist, Peter Heller.

While Julia gave us an 11 year old's, small range view into a catastrophe, in The Dog Stars, our protagonist Hig is a jaded adult, who can literally see the big picture of a world devastated by a flu pandemic from the window of his airplane.

Hig has lost everything-- his wife, his job, and it can be argued, his humanity-- in the pandemic. 99.7% of the population died.  It is 9 years later and life is bad.  People are desperate.  Hig and Bangley have made a good team though.  Set up at a small airstrip in Colorado, Hig, an amateur pilot, flies a 1956 Cessna around the perimeter, with his trusty copilot, his dog Jasper, making sure no one is coming to kill or raid them, while Bangley, who is good with guns and survival techniques mans the ground. They must kill some people, but Hig also helps a group of Amish who have "the blood disease," and brings back treats like salvaged cases of soda.

The entire book is from Hig's point of view.  It is written in stream of consciousness.  The sections are short and choppy.  The prose is spare but descriptive.  We follow the range of Hig's emotions.  He is still very distraught over the loss of his wife and the hopelessness of the world. The pacing is steady with bursts of action, but there are also stretches where nothing happens.

This is a methodical, contemplative book.  While Julia is captivating, Hig wears you down.  Once Jasper dies, Hig finally resolves to stop surviving and start living again.  As a reader, I was ready for this change and so very happy for Hig. He literally comes back to life.

I will not give away more plot details though.   I just want to let readers know that the methodical building of a tone of hopelessness and bleakness begins to lift when Hig decides to go past the safety perimeter.  Heller needed to establish this darkness though in order for Hig's transformation and what happens next to work.

This novel is much more character dependent than The Age of Miracles.  While Thompson's world building can carry large portions of the story, Heller's world has nothing but the characters, specifically Hig and, to a lesser extent, Bangley to keep it moving. The book is more of a character story than a story.

Again, the ending here is open, but with a little more certainty than in The Age of Miracles.  In The Dog Stars, it is hinted that survivors from the Middle East are coming, and Hig and his band of plucky survivors are moving toward living a life, not simply surviving.  Despite the bleakness at the novel's open, the darkness is beginning to slowly, one step at a time, recede.

This is a novel you need to finish, put aside, and think about for at least a few days before you can appreciate it fully.  That is a plus for me, but may not be one for you.

Three Words That Describe This Book: stream of consciousness, methodical, contemplative

This near future dystopia is for people who also enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy which I still believe has a hopeful ending.

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace was suggested by NoveList, "Spare prose and unexpectedly moving romances characterize these post-apocalyptic novels, set in bleak futures in which humanity has been decimated by horrible diseases."

Two books I have read, loved, and think are good fits here are: The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell and A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. All three novels look at apocalyptic situations with compelling characters and spare language.  They are also contemplative with open endings.  Use the links for each title to read more specifics.

For an outside of the box recommendation, I would also suggest Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. While it is a realistic, crime drama, it is also compelling and spare with characters that must over come great despair.

1 comment:

William said...

The Age of Miracles was one of my favorite reads this year! I thought Walker's apocalyptic scenario was frighteningly possible, and her society's response to it realistic and believable. I'll have to check out The Dog Stars. Thanks!