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REVIEW: The Children of Men by P.D. James

REVIEW SUMMARY: Come to the book for the pre-apocalyptic sf or thriller story line, but stay for the dark mood.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: During the last generation of mankind, Theo Faron falls in with a band of revolutionaries who aim to change the ways of the tyrannical Warden of England.

PROS: Wonderfully dark and moody; thought-provoking; well-done characterizations; page-turning.
CONS: It’s not entirely convincing that more efforts wouldn’t be put towards a technological solution to worldwide fertility rather than enforcing new policies to achieve a level of civilization.
BOTTOM LINE: A smashingly good read.

If science fiction is the literature of ideas, it might be unexpected that a hugely enjoyable “what if…?” novel comes from an author who primarily writes mystery novels. P.D. James wildly succeeds in writing a though-provoking, near-future thriller that will please fans of different genres with her 1992 novel The Children of Men.

The premise is based on an event known as “Omega”, a 1995 occurrence of mysterious origin that left all men infertile. Here in 2021, Great Britain, like the rest of the world, is devoid of children. Society has been slowly losing hope as the twilight of mankind approaches ever closer. Pets and dolls have taken the place of children in farcical-but-sad rituals previously reserved for children. Worse, the tyrannical rule of the Warden of England enforces mandatory fertility testing, sanctioned euthanasia (called a Quietus) and has reserved the Isle of Man for criminal banishment. Theodore Faron, a historian and former advisor to the Warden of England (who, incidentally, is his cousin Xan), hooks up with a band of revolutionaries who aim to set things right and just might have the capability of doing so.

The Children of Men was one of those serendipitous finds at a used book store. The title had been on my mind since I had seen mention of the movie version in some UK blogs. (It opens here in the States on December 25th – I so want to see it. Don’t watch the trailer…it’s a little spoilery.)

One of the most endearing qualities of the book has got to be its most depressing: the aura of despair and solemnity that permeates the book like a low-hanging fog. The mood is just plain dark, and wonderfully so. A mere generation away from extinction, humanity’s slow decline is as eerie as it was sad with some citizens pushing dolls around in carriages or christening newborn kittens, grasping for any shred of hope that all things are as normal as they once were. This book has mood pouring off the pages.

The theme of hope recurs often. The first half of the story, steeped in despair, sets the stage for the thriller plotline that flirts with hope in the second half. This is also realized in the character portrayals. The author has a knack for quickly cutting to their essence; descriptive and insightful and simultaneously adding to the grim depiction of the decaying society. Theo, whose story alternates between diary entries and narrative, is a complex and realistic character who adapts to the situation – sometimes of his own choice, sometimes out of necessity. His own marriage and family history is as depressing as the book’s overall mood and is just as insightfully written. His estranged cousin Xan appears to be either a victim of the world situation or a power hungry tyrant. The revolutionaries (Julian, Rolfe, Miriam, Luke and Gascoigne) are determined to go out with some dignity and dedicate themselves to reversing government policy through some decidedly extreme means.

The books central science fiction question (What if mankind was becoming extinct?) creates an effective pre-apocalyptic setting that is immediately thought-provoking. What would happen to society? Would there just be riots? Would the elderly choose to end their own lives in the government-sanctioned mass suicide rituals known as the Quietus? Is the exiling of criminals to a prison island justified and humane in such a scenario? Is it fair to use foreign Omegas (the youngest generation) as “Sojourner” laborers to try to keep society civilized, merely to toss them aside when no longer needed? Does that excuse the Omegas’ ritualistic crime sprees as The Painted Faces? Is forced fertility testing worthwhile when there is potentially a secret eugenics agenda? The effect on society that is shown is mostly believable, with the government eventually recommending that people move to central locations to conserve resources as people start dying off. However, I am not entirely convinced that mankind would go so quietly into the wind without some serious efforts on the technological front instead of being channeled into new laws and SS-like enforcement. Similarly, I’m not sure if it’s realistic that sex without possibly of procreation would become a “meaninglessly acrobatic” experience. To paraphrase Woody Allen: as meaninglessly acrobatic experiences go, it’s one of the best. However, in the grand scheme of all that is The Children of Men, these are minor detractions hardly worth mentioning.

In short, there are elements here that will please readers from different genres. Come to the book for the pre-apocalyptic sf or thriller story line, but stay for the dark mood.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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