Children of Men, The by James, P.D., 1992

Children of Men, The by James, P.D. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I'm not a very big mystery reader. They say that its a even bigger genre than SF, but I never even really look at the mystery section in any of the book stores that I frequent, so I can't even comment on that with personal observations. But in what little ventures I have taken into that genre, I have noticed that there are pretty much three types of mystery writers. There are the ones who emulate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are those who write technology based scientific investigations, a'la CSI. And there are those who write noir. Why am I mentioning all this? Because this book, The Children of Men, was written by noted mystery author P.D. James is a contemporary author who, to me, writes in an archaic style. Its a story set in the near future in which, for some unexplained reason, adults have lost all potency and the ability to become pregnant. Thirty years later, after the full ramifications of the catastrophe have set in and become ingrained in the human psyche, all aspects of civilization and culture start to unwind not with a bang, but with a whimper. Three out of five stars.

This is one of those books about which there is plenty good and plenty bad to say. I think I should start off by telling you that my introduction to this work was through the film. I was somewhat stunned to learn that the book is completely different. It has a very different plot, major characters in the film are composites of those found in the book, character outlooks and attributes are drastically different, and the general focus of the narrative is on a completely different topic. However, this book, I think, does have quite a bit to offer, and in my opinion it is a success for James. But probably just barely. In this review I will comment on the major differences between the book and the movie, then finish with a discussion on the efficacy of James' use of our genres themes.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the movie is the motivations and personality of the main character, Theo Faron. Theo, instead of being an employee of a ministry is a history professor at Oxford. He was formerly married, but he and his wife lost all interest in each other when Theo accidentally backed his car over his infant daughter, Natalie, killing her. The guilt from that not only destroyed his marriage, but finished off his life-long descent into solitude. Theo grew up in a small family. His father suffered when Theo was young from a slow-killing form of cancer that completely defined his father's last few years as a suffering wreck. Now that Theo has advanced in his own years he has become an annoying whiner. Theo's mother was very self absorbed during that time, and was really not a part of his life at all. His cousin, Xan Lyppiatt was the only family member of his own generation with whom he had any contact. Xan grew up to become the "Warden" of England, basically the chief of a small committee of dictators who do not exactly rule with an iron fist, but pay no more attention to civil rights and freedoms than lip service. Xan's policies center around the provision of three rights. Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Boredom. Their greatest concern is probably keeping the populace from getting bored, which they are afraid will either lead to civil strife and destabilization, or that the people will just stop trying to live and commit suicide. In a world that has convinced itself that no children will ever again come, both can be real possibilities.

One of the problems that I personally had with the book is James' style of writing. She is highly descriptive, and seems very much to enjoy long drawn out conversations between multiple parties where the characters exchange multiple pleasantries and whine about things nobody can do anything about. I found the style to be striking, somewhat disturbing even. What makes this all the worse is that James spends quite a bit of time poking around in Theo's head, examining on a microscopic level all the things that he thinks have gone wrong with his life and the world around him. Saying that these parts are tedious is an understatement. Nevertheless, James does do a thorough job of describing the social problems that have cropped up in this world, and that really is the major focus of the book, with the action playing a close second in importance. Here is a sample of her prose. This scene takes place as Theo, Julian (who is not his ex-wife in the book, but who is a member of the Five Fishes, and who is the one who is pregnant), Julian's husband, Rolf, a priest, Luke (who unbeknownst to Rolf is actually the father of the baby), and the midwife, Miriam, are escaping from Xan, who is hot on their heels and has been told by other captured Fishes that Julain is pregnant. On the road to Whales they are besieged by a group of Omegas (members of the last generation of people born before universal sterility) called The Painted Faces, who are nothing more than highwaymen who kill for the thrill of it, and who are pretty much immune from prosecution because they are Omegas. In this scene Luke has thrown himself to The Painted Faces so that Miriam can escape, as it is generally known that they only kill one person in every car that they stop. Luke was clubbed to death as the others escaped over a low wall and back into a forest.

"The Omegas made no move to follow. When Theo and Miriam gained the outskirts of the wood they paused and looked back. And now the killing looked less like a frenzy of blood-lust than a calculated murder. Five or six of the Omegas were holding their torches aloft in a circle within which, silently now, the dark shapes of the half-naked bodies, arms wielding their clubs, rose and fell in a ritual ballet of death. Even from this distance it seemed to Theo that the air was splintered with the smashing of Luke's bones. But he knew that he could hear nothing, nothing but the rasp of Miraim's breathing and the thudding of his own heart. He was aware that Rolf and Julian had come up quietly behind them. Together they watched in silence as the Omegas, their work completed, broke again into a whoop of triumph and rushed to the captured car. In the torchlight Theo could make out the shape of a wide gate to the field bordering the road. Two of the Omegas held it open and the car lurched over the grass verge and through the gate, driven by one of the Omegas, the rest pushed it from behind. They must, Theo knew, have their own vehicle, probably a small van, although he couldn't remember seeing it. But he had a moment's ridiculous hope that they might temporarily abandon it in the excitement of firing the car, that there might be a chance, however small, that he could get to it, might even find that they had left the keys in the ignition. The thought, he knew, had never been rational. Even as it entered his mind he saw that a small black van was being driven up the road and through the gate into the field."

And all that is then followed by no less than six or seven pages of how the group deals with the corpse of Luke, before anything else happens.

James also drew the major conflict in the novel differently than the writers of the movie did. In the book the "terrorists" were a very loosely bound group of five called the Five Fishes. Rather than dispatching a force to move a pregnant refugee from England to a secret scientific enclave where she could raise her baby, the Five Fishes wanted civic reform in England, and ultimately the right to raise the baby in England free from Xan's influence. Specifically, they complained about the following:

  • The Isle of Man: This island was transformed into a prison colony for anyone who stepped out of line. At the time of the story, some 20 years after it was founded, it was a Hell on Earth where warlords ruled and food was highly scarce.

  • Quietus: Unlike the movie, where Quietus is suicide kit marketed to the hopeless, Quietus is a government program where the elderly are drugged or forced onto boats where they are chained to their seats, piloted to the deeps, and sunk. The government has no resources to take care of the elderly and guarantee their basic freedoms, so it deals with the problem in this way. Most of the elderly do not mind, but some do. The Five Fish want it stopped.

  • Sojourners/immigration: Omegas (those born in the last years before potency was completely lost) from poor nations are brought to England to do menial and physical labor, then forcibly repatriated in their home nations at age 60. The Five Fishes want them to be treated as citizens and given basic rights.

  • Political reform: Xan and his council were originally elected to their positions, but probably because of apathy, they were never removed after their terms ended. The Five Fishes want elections.

  • The Omegas: The Omegas were the last generation that was born, and they are the secondary focus of the novel. They have been brought up observed more than paintings in the Louvre, and are given basically anything that they want because they are the youngest. They are the youth that everyone longs for, and the last hope for children that everyone covets. And they also are so self absorbed that they come off as quite evil. They were totally above the law (at least the British-born whites were), and could literally murder with impunity. The complaint that the Fishes made about them was as useless as the complaint that they made about all the other things in this list.

  • Porn shops and mandatory fertility testing: Xan's government has set up porn shops because sexual desire has virtually disappeared since people have lost the ability to procreate. Everyone has lost all hope, and recreational sex just isn't what it is now, since the possibility of creating a child is now gone. Xan wants people to mate as much as possible on the off chance that a child is created. The Five Fishes think that the porn shops that are geared to get people in the mood are unseemly and want them closed. Similarly, they protest the invasion of privacy from the mandatory monthly fertility checks, and want those stopped too.

Though they are cast as terrorists, the Five Fishes are pretty pathetic. They are not so interested in changing the political process directly, but are more interested in changing the hearts and minds of the people. They don't seem to realize that those hearts and minds are absolutely lost, and will never come back again. That motif, the complete and utter loss of hope, is really what this book is about. At least until the end. In the end James does a very convincing job of changing everything about not only Theo, but about the entire world. The catalyst for the change is, of course, the birth of a child, and its every bit as transformational in this book as it is in real life.

Suffice it to say that the film makers took some great liberties with James' text, as the resolution to this story is nothing like the movie. Overall I think that this book is a success. James set out to tell not a SF genre tale, but rather an epic tale of a dystopia (or rather, an anti-Utopia) with a strong burst of hope for the future at the end, and that is exactly what she gives you. Where the book fails is not in waiting to examine the true depth of that loss until the very end of the book, but instead using it as part of the back drop for one encounter and conversation after another. After the first few chapters it becomes quite obvious that James in not interested in really examining the issue, but rather just interested in assuming the totality of it and all the social ills it brings only. She allows no room for all of the other little victories and hopes that drive us every day, and just sort of assumes that everything else goes away just because the prize at the top of the heap is no longer available. I suppose that I can buy that, but it would have been nice to see some deeper analysis of the issue. As a result the bulk of this book is quite dark, and due to James style the telling of the story is a mixed bag, and also somewhat dry. If it weren't for the fact that James is a master at describing the various policies and exploring the motivations for them, I would have thrown this thing away in disgust. As it is, on the balance I have to say that James gives a book of mixed quality that overall is probably worth the effort for some, but probably not all.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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