Author Interviews
4:13 pm
Mon June 25, 2012

As The Earth Slows, This 'Miracle' Becomes Calamity

Originally published on Tue June 26, 2012 4:27 pm

Imagine waking up to find that Earth's rotation has slowed — inexplicably — and the 24-hour day now has 56 extra minutes. And imagine what happens if Earth turns more and more slowly — still for no reason — until days last as long as weeks.

That's the disturbing premise behind the new novel, The Age of Miracles. And the effects of what becomes known as "the slowing" are calamitous: birds fall from the sky; whales beach themselves. The oceans shift, and communities wash away. Gravity intensifies, magnetic fields decay and radiation floods the planet. Plants and animals die off.

Author Karen Thompson Walker tells NPR's Melissa Block that she got the idea for the book when she read a startling fact: The 2004 earthquake in Indonesia was so powerful that it accelerated Earth's spin, shortening the day by a tiny fraction of a second.

"I thought it was incredibly unsettling that that could happen, that something that I had always taken for granted — you know, the steady rising and setting of the sun every day — was actually subject to change," Walker says.

Walker began to wonder what would happen to the planet and its people if there were a much larger change. In addition to the environmental effects, The Age of Miracles describes a growing tension between people who stick to the government-mandated 24-hour clock time — known as "clock-timers" — and the "real-timers," who try to adjust their rhythms to the changing length of the days.

"What that means, though, is that children are going to school sometimes in the dark," Walker says. "9 a.m. could land in the middle of a stretch of darkness, or noon might be happening at the same time as the sunset."

The "real-timers" can't accept that kind of disjointed life — and Walker says they make the "clock-timers" nervous. "They have to live outside of society as a result, and many of them begin to start these colonies, you know, in the deserts and the wildernesses, where they can live just by the sunrise and the sunset," she says.

Walker says she did scientific research to make her slowly rotating world feel real. "I would lift details from newspaper stories," she says. Reports on strange weather, climate change, extinctions and industrial farming all became fodder for the story.

When it was done, Walker worked up the nerve to show her manuscript to an astrophysicist. "I was relieved at how many of the consequences [of the slowing] he felt were based in real science," she says. "And then he helped me make a few of them a little more realistic."

Walker grew up in Southern California, and she says that informed her writing. "When you live in California, especially as a child, you're always half-aware that a huge natural disaster, especially an earthquake, could happen at any moment. But really, you don't think about it very much, you know, you go on living," she says. "That combination of daily life with looming disaster was something I was interested in."

She describes a ritual she and her classmates went through at the beginning of every school year: packing a three-day supply of nonperishable food in case a big earthquake hit while school was in session. "Of course, it never struck while I was there, but that consciousness of disaster is part of living in California," she says.

Reading The Age of Miracles can be an unsettling experience, which Walker attributes to her overactive imagination. "I'm someone with a bit of a wild imagination for disaster," she laughs. "I drew on that hobby, or skill, to write the book. But I do think there is something about apocalyptic stories ... where, when you start to imagine all of ordinary life, all of the things we're used to, falling away, it does, in a way that you might not expect, concentrate your attention on the kind of meaning and magic of all those small ordinary things we take for granted every day."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Imagine waking up to find that the Earth's rotation has slowed inexplicably, that the 24 hour day now has 56 extra minutes and imagine what happens if the Earth turns more and more slowly for no reason until days last as long as weeks. That's the disturbing premise behind the new novel titled "The Age of Miracles" and the effects of what becomes known as the slowing are calamitous.

Birds fall from the sky. Whales beach themselves. The oceans shift and communities wash away. As gravity intensifies, people fall ill. Magnetic fields decay and radiation washes over the planet. Plants and animals die off.

It's the vision of Karen Thompson Walker in her debut novel. The idea came when she read that the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia was so powerful that it accelerated the Earth's spin and shortened the day by a tiny fraction of a second.

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: When I read that, I was just stunned. I thought it was incredibly unsettling that that could happen. That something that I had always taken for granted, you know, the steady rising and setting of the sun every day was actually subject to change. And I started to wonder right away what would happen to the planet and to us if there was a much larger change. So that's why, in the book, the days grow by much more than a fraction of a second.

BLOCK: And, Karen, you set up this fascinating tension between groups of people who stay on clock time, as the government has decided they should. Clock-timers and real-timers who try to set their rhythms to the rising and setting of the sun, which stretch it out. It gets farther and farther apart.

WALKER: Yeah. As soon as I started to paint this world where this was happening, I realized that because of the kind of chaos that would result from the days coming out of synch with the clocks, the government would have to do something to preserve some sort of order and so what they do is impose the 24 hour clock.

What that means, though, is that children are going to school sometimes in the dark. You know, 9:00 a.m. could land in the middle of a stretch of darkness or noon might be happening at the same time as the sunset.

Because it's so strange and unnatural, some people, a minority of people, the real-timers - they just can't accept that type of artificial life. And the real-timers make the clock-timers nervous and the real-timers, they have to live outside of society as a result. And many of them begin to start these colonies, you know, in the deserts and the wildernesses where they can live just by the sunrise and the sunset.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about your process. As you were thinking about, you know, what would happen if the Earth started to slow, who did you talk to to try to see, you know, is this real? Would this actually be the effect, that there'd be a bird die off and a plant die off and gravity would intensify?

WALKER: Well, I really wanted it to feel real, so I did a certain amount of scientific research and I would lift details from newspaper stories often. You know, I think there's so many strange things happening in our real world, like anytime there was a story about weird weather or new reports on climate change or extinction of species or the way that we use industrial greenhouses to grow crops that we couldn't otherwise grow.

And then, when I was finished and I had a complete draft, I worked up the nerve, I'd say, to show it to an astrophysicist and that was a little scary, but I was relieved by how many of the consequences he felt were based in real science. And then he helped me make a few of them a little more realistic.

BLOCK: Karen, you're from Southern California. How important do you think it was for you to set the book there? Talk about that choice.

WALKER: I definitely drew on the scenery, you know, the beaches and the cliffs and the eucalyptus trees and bougainvillea. But I do also think, when you live in California, especially as a child, you're always half aware that a huge natural disaster, especially an earthquake, could happen at any moment, but really, you don't think about it very much. You know, you go on living pretty pleasant days.

But I remember we used to, at the beginning of every school year, have to pack a Ziploc bag full of nonperishable foods, three days' supply, and that food would live in this plastic tub in the corner of the classroom. And that would be the food that, if the big earthquake that everyone predicts will one day hit California, if that struck while we were at school and we were stranded, that's the food we would eat for three days. And, of course, it never struck while I was there, but that consciousness of disaster is part of living in California.

BLOCK: You know, reading this book is an unsettling experience, I mean, thinking about this apocalyptic vision, in a way, and I wonder, as the writer when you were working on this, if you would sort of wake up in the morning and be glad to see the sun had risen at the time you expected it to rise. Did some of this sort of filter into your subconscious?

WALKER: I don't know. I mean, I'm someone with a bit of a wild imagination for disaster, so I think just in my life, so I think, you know, I drew on that hobby or skill to write the book. But I do think there is something about apocalyptic stories as a writer and as a reader where, when you start to imagine all of ordinary life, all the things that we're used to, falling away, it does in a way that you might not expect concentrate your attention on, the kind of meaning and magic of all those small, ordinary things we take for granted every day.

BLOCK: Karen Thompson Walker. Her book is "The Age of Miracles." Karen, thanks so much.

WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.