The Children of Men
Written by: P.D. James
Synopsis: The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.
Challenges: Dystopian for Book'd Out's Eclectic Reader Challenge
In place of the challenges I usually do (and fail) each year, I decided to set myself a few goals instead. I wanted to read a more diverse range of books and I wanted to make time to re-read books, something I haven't done much of since starting this blog. The Children of Men was a book I enjoyed a lot the first time around, and when I was looking for a short read to take down to Sydney with me this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see if I liked it as much second time around.
The short answer is yes, oh my god yes I enjoyed this the second time around. In a short book P.D James manages to create a dystopian future that is both horrifying and interesting while also filling it with characters that are at times jarring but always well developed and complex. I hesitate to hold it up against titles like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 but the future The Children of Men portrays is equally chilling. Our race, no longer able to reproduce, is slowly waiting to die. That in and of itself is fascinating, and a large part of the book is almost a character study of how the protagonist Theo and the people around him choose to handle this truth. How do you work when you know in 20 years 90% of the population will be gone. Why do you keep gardens kept or buildings maintained? Why do you bother with sex and marriage if there can be no children? Why should we be contained by laws if we're all going to die soon anyway, and there will be no one to inherit the mess? Adding to this conceit is the real world potential that James introduces to the narrative. Prior to the mass infertility there had been a noted slump in the amount of children born across Europe. Factor in women choosing career over family, the AIDS epidemic and the worldwide consideration that perhaps a slump would be welcome considering how polluted the world is with our numbers. Perhaps mass infertility will never happen (exactly how it occurred is never explained) but by adding those real world elements it's hard not to stop and think 'what if''.
While I found the world to be amazingly interesting, it was the people that made it most fascinating. There are the Omegas, the last people born before infertility spread across the world. How do you live when your whole life is spent in an unwanted spotlight, a constant reminder that the human race failed and have since given up on living? They're portrayed as surly, mysterious, pretentious, uninterested, beautiful, heart-breaking - the whole gamut of complex and unwanted characteristics, yet retaining a level of sympathy both to us, the readers, and the characters in the book. In a world that hasn't seen a child in 15 years, people have had to turn that attention elsewhere. Some turn to pets, who they baby and coddle and hold birthing parties for. Others, much more darkly effected by their lack of fertility, turn to porcelain dolls as their baby substitutes. They walk their 'children' around in prams and smile brightly as people look over the edge at their little darlings and tickle their fragile china chins. There's something so bleak and desperate in that image, and James manages to paint a ghastly picture of these 'mothers' in a scene that Theo witnesses one morning on his way to work. It's such a brief moment, but it says so much about the world, the psychological state of those left living, and of Theo as he (fails to) react to the situation. It's just one example of how James uses the people in the book to say what needs to be said, a perfect exemplar of the show don't tell rule of story telling.
The Children of Men is fascinating, thrilling and provocative. James has a real skill for crafting a suspenseful and compelling tale that's heavy with implications but not weighty with morality lessons. But above all it's the characters that make this book worth a read, both the secondary characters that appear briefly and the primary characters who dominate the narrative. It's short, sharp and takes a stab at Neighbours which makes it even more worthy of a read. Or a re-read.