The Short Version: Without warning, the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down. At first, it’s not really noticeable… but as it continues and days literally turn into weeks, the human race is forced to adapt to a planet no longer hospitable. Meanwhile, young Julia is still just trying to navigate the minefields of being 11-turning-12 – and life does go on, even in the face of horrible realities.
The Review: There’s a reference at one point in the novel to a Ray Bradbury story. I don’t know it, actually – it’s not one of the better known (at least to me) short stories. But in that moment, I realized something: this is a Bradbury novel for the new millenium. The great man’s passing earlier this year was a blow, to be certain, to imagination and literature – but to know that there are authors like Karen Thompson Walker is to know that fiction, fantastic fiction, is in plenty good hands.
The concept is simple enough – and one that’s not out of the realm of possibility. What if the Earth’s rotation suddenly started to slow down? For no apparent reason – just one day we realized that the days were getting a little longer for no good reason… and then someone thought to track it. I can tell you that the thought made me slightly suspicious of the long, otherwise-lovely New York City summer sunset I experienced this evening. We know very little about this planet, when you think about it… so who’s to say it couldn’t slow down? Reverse its poles? Engineer a super-flu? Evolve plants that can eat you? Sure, Melancholia isn’t going to smash into us any time soon – but an asteroid might. When you start to think about it, it’s pretty easy to come up with several hundred ways in which we could all be snuffed out pretty damn fast. So I guess it isn’t a surprise that the apocalyptic genre has, in these troubled times, picked up steam.
But just because something’s being written often doesn’t mean it’s any good. This book is… if not an exception, it certainly rises above most of the rest. The Leftovers, a shall-we-say ‘sibling’ apocalypse novel (published within the span of a year, really about family dynamics, etc), pales in comparison to this story – because this one is rooted in something fundamental. Religion comes and goes – the idea of people mysteriously disappearing is, plain and simple, a fairytale. The Earth slowing down… that could happen. And what would happen when it does?
The most marvelous answer that Ms. Walker provides is that… basically things would stay the same. Or at least, they would for as long as it was possible. The debate between “real time” and “clock time” is a fascinating example: the world governments sort of arbitrarily – and hurriedly – decide that they’re going to keep to the 24 hour clock. This means that even as the planet slows down, the ‘days’ stay the same. By the end of the novel, they’re living literally entire days in the dark or in the light. It’s like the Arctic Circle only on a really rapidly increased pace. I mean, think about it – if a solar day extends to suddenly, let’s say, 96 hours on the autumnal equinox… that’s 48 hours of light and 48 of dark. That’s two full days in the sun and two full days in the dark. Back to back.
There’s quite a bit of interesting hypothesis – without any wild conjecture; it’s all just enough to get your brain whirring – about the human body and what it can adapt to. What the mind can adapt to versus what the body can adapt to. Honestly, I’d want to be one of the ‘real timers’ because a) it seems to work (for a time, anyway) and b) because I hate sleeping during the daylight. But seriously: the human body can, if trained, adapt its rhythms. Or the mind snaps. Either/or. But that’s not all that changes – it isn’t just light/dark. Gravity gets stronger (naturally). Animals and crops die off. The tides radically shift. And eventually you’re going to see some real catastrophic changes to the makeup of the planet – we’re going to, perhaps, look more like Mars than like Earth.
But the Bradbury of it all, to return to my earlier statement, is that this is all seen through the eyes of an 11 year old girl. She’s dealing with crushes, with Mean Girls, with school in general, with parents whose marriage is on the rocks – and to top it all off, the planet is slowing down. It’s a lot to handle and to watch these young children – young children truly being the most evil and most wonderful creatures in our society, sometimes at the same time – navigate it is to understand not only the new mysterious reality… but to reflect on your own childhood. It was something Bradbury accomplished smashingly well in Something Wicked This Way Comes – and Walker pulls it off here, too. This is, in a way, the girl’s version of that book (if I may be so bold/sexist).
Julia is a terrific protagonist. She’s relatively ordinary – not the early developer, not the smartest, not the sportiest, not even the utmost anything. She’s just a normal girl and she’s just trying to come of age in the world. But to watch her struggle to grow up as well as to deal with the world she was trained to believe in become unreliable almost overnight… it’s a unique form of lovely tragedy. The individual moments – first love, the bitchy ‘friend’, losing your best friend to someone else, training bras, watching your parents age, etc – are all there, but done so well and in the context of this massive paradigm shift that you can’t help but find a new appreciation for them. They’re as heartbreaking and lovely and funny and sad and smart as any YA teen novel – but it is watching them happen to a girl whose world has been completely redefined is what elevates the novel.
Rating: 5 out of 5. The book never overstays its welcome and while I think the very end was an unnecessary coda… and I would’ve liked to’ve seen, perhaps, a bit more of the global reaction… I was captivated by this book. Polished it off in the span of 14 hours and that felt just right. It’s a simple story, told simply: to’ve given more time to it would’ve done it a disservice. Instead, a radical concept is paired with the universal realities of humanity – and the result, told plainly, is a story not only possible/plausible but enjoyable and unique as well. If the concept sometimes overtakes the story, well, that’s bound to happen. It doesn’t detract, not in the slightest.
A note on the edition: Allow this to be my first (and certainly not last) shill for Powell’s Indiespensable. I ordered this book through their lovely subscription service and it arrived in a beautiful limited edition slipcover. It was signed by the author. There was a utility tool and a set of awesome (and now regularly used) bamboo utensils. And it was all $40 including shipping. Look, sometimes the choice isn’t necessarily what you’re into: I’m not buying into the upcoming round. But you can get a rare copy of a well-regarded new novel with some fun treats and trinkets to boot. It’s what separates a physical book from an e-book – these guys know where it’s AT.