The Children of Men

by P.D. James

  General / Positive Reviews
  Critical Reviews
  At the world's end *****

This subtle and thought-provoking work of science fiction is quite different from P. D. James' detective stories, but as well-written as the best of them. The premise is brilliantly simple: in 1995, all over the world, the human race has become incapable of propagation; now, in 2021, an aging and dwindling population faces an existence without future, hope, or apparent purpose. England has become an outwardly benevolent police state, maintaining a veneer of normality with the tacit acquiescence of an apathetic population. James does not belabor the process by which these social changes have taken place, but her vision is all too plausible.

I read the novel in the movie-tie-in edition, with a picture of Clive Owen on the cover looking through a broken window of grimy glass. From what I have seen of the trailer, the photo is a perfect summary of the movie's atmosphere of apocalyptic urban decay, but it couldn't be less suitable as an illustration for James' book. I shall have to wait to see whether this is merely a question of emphasis, in that the scenes shown in the trailer perhaps do not represent the balance of the whole, or whether the entire movie has been transposed to a quite different world. For now, I am writing only about the book.

Although the future setting may take the reader into an alternate reality, the book is still very much anchored in the familiar world of the present. A common theme of all James' novels is what happens when the civilized world, the comfortable world of the upper middle classes, is touched by evil, and the books depend upon the author's ability to invoke that world and its inhabitants. The first half of the novel takes place in and around Oxford, the city in which nothing ever changes, as one character remarks. And when the action goes further afield, it moves into the English countryside, a little overgrown perhaps, but restored to its primal richness and described with a loving eye. The more tense the action gets, the more James seems to linger on brief vignettes of rural beauty.

The people are also reassuringly normal. Theodore Fanon, the leading character, is a fiftyish professor of Victorian history, safe in his ivory tower. Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England, though effectively the country's dictator, is Theodore's cousin and childhood friend. The four-person Council of England (one of whose members is described as "the universal grandmother") seeks only to provide its people with "protection, comfort, and pleasure" and give them a measure of dignity in which to end their days. This is not Orwell's 1984; there may be ruthlessness here, but no obvious hypocrisy or corruption. The evil, if evil there is, cannot simply be ascribed to some Big Brother figure; it is always there as a potential in people like ourselves, and there are several places in the story in which apparently good characters are at least tempted towards the ways of evil. I find the apparent normality of the characters and setting truly frightening -- far more so than a feral wasteland where it is every man for himself.

I described the book as science fiction, but it can also be read on other levels. It is very much the work of an older writer facing a life that has passed its mid-point. The universal childlessness can be seen as an allegory for a perceived loss of purpose in modern society, reflected in the pursuit of pleasure, the destruction of the environment, and the dissolution of faith. As a minor but significant theme, this is also a religious work, about the meaning of God in a world which seems to deny the most significant aspect of his existence: his role as the Creator of Life. But while these matters may provide food for later thought, I would not want to make the novel seem too solemn. Quite simply put, it is an excellent story, succinctly told, full of character, emotion, and suspense, and suffused with nostalgia for the richness of English rural life. Read it!

Roger Brunyate "reader/writer/musician"


  What is the Meaning of Life ***

I have never read a PD James novel before, and I read this because a good friend of mine really liked it. I understand this novel may be a little different than her other mystery genre novels.

Much like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, this novel is set in the not too distant future. The crisis: every healthy person is apparently infertile. It is the story of one man's journey to learn about himself and about fellow man as a species and as companions.

The writing is fine, very British, very readable; the characters may be a little stiff. The story was a little hard to swallow as far as people's behavior in this situation, but I suppose in a world like this, everything would be hard to understand. People have begun to question their faith, their leaders, and their very reason for being. The ending was fairly moving, especially after the somewhat cold first 3/4 of the book.

I guess this book is supposed to be a warning--a possible scenario for the end of our species, other than the meteor hurtling unstoppably towards our planet, the destruction of life through nuclear war, or the annihilation of our planet by the supernova that once was our sun. The infertility of the human species is simply inexplicable, and the author is very non-judgmental about what could be a whole list of possible reasons, but the truth is, it really doesn't matter why. Everyone seems to acknowledge that this is just the end of humans, and nature will continue on without them as people age and die, without leaving offspring to repopulate the planet, and without having the joy that comes with propagation: the beauty of having children in our lives, even if they aren't our own children.

Overall, a different kind of "science fiction" novel. An interesting take on an age old question: What is the meaning of life? Not a bad read.






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