Worried about the reports that the fertility of British men has been gradually declining in recent years, the master of the British detective story has put her series of mystery novels, including Devices and Desires, on hiatus to focus on a futuristic dystopia of male sterility. The sperm count across the globe hit the big zero sometime in 1995 with the birth of Joseph Ricardo, dubbed the last of the gen Omega.
The year is 2021 ( keep in mind that The Children of Men was originally published in 1992), and the classic British TV show Neighbors is on every screen. This time around, there’s little to no mystery surrounding the popularity of the soap opera. Now, the sight of young people, even the dumb youth of the 1990s, is poised to appeal to the aging and dwindling population ravaged by global human infertility.
The Warden of England, Xan Lyppiatt who happens to be Theo’s cousin, reigns supreme. His rule is enforced by the State Security Police and his Grenadiers. He has amassed his powers by forcing all immigrants to work at public works as manual laborers. Not just that; he also consolidated his rule by forcing convicted criminals to seek asylum in the Isle of Man, which has recently been turned into a prison colony.
Xan also encourages the Quietus, which describes mass suicides, in which case the government pays a bounty to their survivors. All of these cruel actions were laughably sanctioned by the scared and graying population, worried that they won’t be cared for and provided for in old age. They are also desperate for the love and warmth of the youth that women occasionally bring to the streets while pushing their baby trolleys packed with dolls or kittens.
When Julian, a female student, approaches Theo, he finds himself first siding with his tyrannical cousin. But soon changes his mind suddenly when Julian tells him that she’s pregnant. Julian is hellbent on keeping her pregnancy a secret from the ruling council of England, and she’s ready to use every might she’s got. And that includes a heavy cost to the Five Fishes, a small group of mostly women who are tired of Xan’s brutal and inhuman policy on euthanasia and forced fertility testing.
Surprisingly, an unexpected engagement with the group of dissidents moves Xan onto a new path that leads him to the second half of the story. He’s now ready to take risks, make commitments, and enjoy both the anguish and joys of love. In this persuasively detailed post-apocalyptic world – in which dolls and kittens are baptized, the arts have taken the back-burner and sex has literally lost its glory.
The most interesting thing about the British author’s flight from detective science fiction is the way he masterfully explores the sad mortality and bleak moral texture of a failed and hurting society. In this despondent world, people don’t aspire or go after prosperity; instead, they seek short-term entertainment, content, and simple comfort.
The Children of Men starts painfully slow, something that the readers must be ready to persevere for the story picks up the pace and delivers brilliantly in later chapters. James’s powerful imagination and calculated writing are accentuated by an array of partial yet more intimate details, such as the christening of kittens, the pampered dolls, and the audio recordings of treble voices of boys that are played over and over in college chapels. Once you have powered through the sluggish start, the story is sure to be worth your while.
In a paradoxical twist, James’s writing has more vigor, more virility, and more pizzazz when evoking the infertility issues of the British menfolk. This dramatic contrast helps heighten the suspense built into the story. For instance, James keeps the reader guessing the extent to which Theo may be corrupted by his cousin’s vast, ill-gotten power. Even more important, this writing style makes the ambiguously optimistic ending much more chilling and disturbing than most readers are ready to admit.
There’s no question that the premise behind this novel is fascinating; it’s believable and P.D. James has explored it convincingly. You can’t find a more thought-provoking tale of humanity on the verge of extinction than this. The novel itself is meticulously written, fairly poignant, and always urging the reader to course through a variety of themes, ranging from immigration to dictatorship and assisted suicide.
The only shortcoming is that the book gives off this odd old-fashioned feel as if it was set or written in the heydays of the 1940s or 1950s. You don’t get that futuristic vibe that we have come to associate with some of the best post-apocalyptic fiction books. That aside, The Children of Men is a fantastic book, definitely one of the best books to include in your reading list for the year.