Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006. 337 pp. 978-0-15-206154-8.

... in which the moon is knocked closer to the Earth, causing catastrophic events on Earth and the end of life as we knew it.

The difficulty in reading science fiction set in current times on our Earth is that it is sometimes difficult to separate the science from the story. This book is not really strictly science fiction; perhaps it's more accurate to call it dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction with a bit of a sci-fi streak in the beginning. However, considering that this is a book intended for teen readers, I guess scientific accuracy can be somewhat ignored.

The story is told in diary format, written by 15-year-old Miranda. Early on, Miranda writes about very 15-year-old-American-girl troubles: fights with friends, worries about math tests, fretting over boys, angsting over her parents' divorce and her father's subsequent remarriage and baby-on-the-way. In the backdrop is a coming astronomical event that has the whole world excited: a giant asteroid is headed towards Earth, and will collide with the moon. Astronomers say that the collision will be visible with the naked eye, and pretty spectacular if you've got a pair of binoculars or a telescope. Unfortunately, the astronomers miscalculated and the moon was knocked off its axis and was bumped significantly closer to Earth. This caused a number of alarming problems: the tides were so affected by the moon's gravitational pull that 20-ft tsunamis drowned the coasts, satellites were knocked off of their orbits and cell service was lost, volcanoes began erupting with greater frequency, and earthquakes became commonplace.

The story focuses on Miranda and her family (mom, college age brother, younger brother) and their struggle to survive. The volcanic activity leads to nuclear winter. Electricity becomes a thing of the past. Flu pandemics decimate the population. Food becomes a very scarce commodity.

Let us start with the science part of the book. The easiest to accept consequence is the disruption of satellite service. Satellites are dinky little things, when compared to the moon, so I can see them getting thrown out of whack by the moon. However, the idea of the moon moving at all is what trips me up. First of all, Newton's first law of motion states that an object in motion will continue moving in a straight line until acted on by an outside force. Assuming that the asteroid WAS large enough and forceful enough to move the moon. The moon is in space (essentially frictionless) and subjected to the gravitational pull. Anyone who has had physics knows that the force of the pull of the Earth on the moon is equal to the force of the pull of the moon on the Earth; we also know that the Earth is much more massive (by two orders of magnitude), so will have a greater amount of inertia. My point here is: if the moon got bumped that forcefully, why did it move a little closer to the Earth and then stop? What prevented it from just continuing on its merry way and just slamming into the planet's surface? I suppose that wouldn't make for much of a story, as everyone would just be dead if that happened.

I will accept the world-wide tsunamis as a believable consequence of the moon moving closer to the planet. However, I draw the line at accepting that the moon's gravitational pull is pulling magma to the surface of the crust and causing more volcanic activity, even in areas that were previously inactive. I will also draw the line at the earthquakes. But of all of these consequences, it's the volcanoes that make the biggest impact on humans, so I suppose we will have to suspend disbelief and go with it, for the sake of the storyline.

Fortunately, after the first few chapters, the science of the whole problem becomes irrelevant, and the story and characters are so well developed and well written that you (almost) forget all about the gaping science holes. Miranda starts out as a pretty typical 15 year old, including all of the annoying traits that are common in teens like her. However, she has a great deal of character development over the course of the novel, as the unique circumstances necessitate a great deal of maturation on her part.

In terms of the problems that Miranda's family faces, this is by far and away one of the bleaker novels I have read, and it was easy to forget that I was reading a book intended for teenagers. It starts out small: power outages, no phone service, panic at the grocery store. It quickly escalates: the volcanoes are causing a nuclear winter effect that forces temperatures down to well below freezing in August. Food is scarce. Gas is $10/gallon and the price is still rising. Over the course of the winter, Miranda's family has to learn to not only avoid freezing to death, but to also avoid starvation. By the end of the novel, several members of the family are eating a can of vegetables only every few days.

The book explores some very dark themes. It explores the idea of sexual exploitation (though not at all explicitly) when one of Miranda's teenage friends runs off to safer locales with a 40 year old man. It shows the effects of religious zeal in times of extreme crisis. And it brings up the question: what should a mother do with very limited food resources and three of her kids to feed? Does she feed them all and condemn them all to eventual starvation? Or does she pick the one who is most likely to survive, and focus the resources on that one?

For anyone who can turn a blind eye to an implausible setup and instead focus on the individual people, this is a recommended read. It's bleak, and it's dark, but not necessarily depressing. Certainly if you are a fan of post-apocalyptic stories, you would enjoy this.

Now I am going to fill my pantry with canned goods and bottled water.

4/5 stars


  1. Things that mix science and non-science in unclear ways (like it sounds here) bug me. It sounds like a neat story though!

  2. It bugs me too, but I overlooked it in this case because the story and characters were so realistic and compelling.


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