Children of Men

This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

In P.D. James’s 1992 novel, Children of Men, the world is ending, and with a whimper. It is 2021, and all the men on Earth have suddenly and for no clear reason become infertile. There have been no babies born since 1995. The British government, under the leadership of Xan, the Warden of England, has been preparing for humanity’s last gasp by taking measures to ensure the comfort and safety of the people of the UK.

The novel’s protagonist, Theo Faron, is an Oxford don and cousin to Xan. For a short time, he served on Xan’s council, but a sort of malaise that seems to have taken hold of many in the country caused Theo to resign his post. Entries in Theo’s diary, mixed with third-person accounts of Theo’s activities, comprise the chapters of this interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying novel.

Theo himself is not a particularly likable character. He’s selfish and distant and keeps himself on the outside everything, even events within his own family. As such, he represents much of the spirit of his time. Without children to care for and a future to hope for, many people have become disconnected, creating bunkers where they can live out their days or giving themselves (or their loved ones) an early end. In his quiet desperation, Theo represents a world of people who need someone to nurture and care for. For Theo, that person arrives in the form of Julian, a young woman who once sat in on one of his classes and later approaches him for help reaching Xan on behalf of a group of her friends who are urging government reform. Theo is unaccountably drawn to Julian, and almost against his own wishes, he becomes a tangential member of her circle.

James’s vision of disconnection and despair in this childless world is frighteningly believable. So much about the way people tried, in vain, to find something to live for made sense to me. Worldwide infertility would be devastating on an individual and a systemic level, and James delves into all of these implications. People begin to make up for their personal desire for children by purchasing expensive dolls or christening kittens. The government ensures that the elderly are taken care of as the youth population declines by allowing temporary immigrants to come and work as caregivers, as long as they leave by age 60, when they might begin to need care. Cities are slated for depopulation, their citizens required to move to more populated areas for the better sharing of resources.

Many elements of James’s vision worked well and made a sort of intuitive sense, but so much more of it was unconvincing that I could never quite get behind this novel. In some cases, as with the reduced libido of the general population, James made a good case, even if I didn’t quite buy it. James suggests that sex without the possibility of procreation would lose its urgency, and people would gradually lose interest in it. I’m not convinced, but at least James acknowledged that this trend went against all logic.

In other cases, however, she just throws in things that make no sense and offers no real explanation. For example, the church has become entirely anemic. Christianity has all but died out, and you’re as likely to find a black mass being held in a church building as you would a baptism. What you don’t find is religious revival, even though there is no future for humanity to look forward to on Earth. Would it not make sense for larger numbers of people to start thinking more about a possible afterlife? Even though the novel is infused with religious imagery, this notion is not even entertained. And then there’s the extreme insularity of Britain that seems to be just accepted as fact. The temporary immigrants and Theo’s holiday in Europe are almost the only mentions made of the outside world. This defies belief, even for a novel written almost 20 years ago. If Xan has managed to consolidate power over all his nation in such a short amount of time, would there not be players on the world stage attempting to do the same?

Putting aside these world-building issues, I found the characters to be less and less convincing as the book went on. Julian, with her ability to draw the loyalty of every man she meets, is particularly hard to accept as real. And Julian’s group accepts Theo much too easily. The power struggles that do pop up disappear whenever it’s convenient.

My frustration was serious enough that I nearly set this book aside several times. But to give James credit, I did want to know what happened. (In this case, seeing the movie would not help, as I have seen it, and it’s hardly the same story at all. That did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. The book did that on its own.) To give James further credit, there’s a stunning sequence at the end involving a ring and an unexpected choice that took me utterly by surprise and created just the kind of ambiguity I like, especially when it shows up at the end. (I’d love to talk about the ending with someone who’s read the book.)

On the whole, Children of Men is an uneven read. P.D. James has the makings of a good book here, but I never could quite suspend my disbelief enough to appreciate it.

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22 Responses to Children of Men

  1. Frances says:

    I usually love P.D. James but this one was a real chore to read for many of the reasons you mention here. I believe “Oh, come on!” came out of my mouth more than once. Even the end could not redeem the book for me (we can talk about it next time I see you). Writing, construction both admirable as always but premise a complete loss for me.

  2. Teresa says:

    “Oh, come on” definitely escaped my lips several times. The ending didn’t quite redeem the book for me, but it certainly kept me from being altogether irritated. I have liked the handful of her mysteries I’ve read, but she was definitely working outside her comfort zone here, and it shows.

  3. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I don’t think I’d believe the futility of sex either. Such a nice review you’ve written here. I’ve not read the book but it sounds like I should be wary of it.

    I’ve always loved that quote by Eliot, by the way.

    • Teresa says:

      I think she was drawing from a strand of Catholic theology (although she herself is Anglican) for the perspective on sex and that in itself was interesting. I could have bought it as part of a general societal malaise, or among some people, but not to such a degree.

  4. Jenny says:

    I too found this book to be very uneven. It put me right off PD James, which probably isn’t fair, because I understand this isn’t her usual kind of book. If you read something else by her and find it is better, I will maybe give her another try. It’s a shame, too, because I think the premise is very strong.

    • Teresa says:

      I read at least a couple of her mysteries years and years ago and liked them. But I don’t remember any thing about them, and it might be telling that I didn’t like them enough to go out and read them all. But she is known for her mysteries, so those would probably give a better indication of her talent.

  5. Christy says:

    I saw the movie and thought it was pretty good, but from your review I don’t think I’d enjoy reading the book. I think I heard they changed some things for the movie.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked the movie, but it wasn’t a favorite. From what I remember, though, about all it and the book have in common are the mass infertility, the baby, and maybe some character names. I remember people who loved the book being appalled at the adaptation.

  6. Jenny says:

    I’ve been kind of intrigued by this book, but from the sound of it, it wouldn’t actually appeal to me much. Too bad; the opening idea is great, and James’s writing is always so clean.

  7. This book has intrigued me and I’ve almost bought it on a couple of occasions. I’m less likely to do so after reading your review but I’m still a little intrigued. Sounds strangely similar to Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma (world in jeopardy, futility of life etc) which I just read and found unsatisfying although not without merits.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve not read Girlfriend in a Coma, but I do want to give Coupland a second try someday.

      “Unsatisfying but not without merits” sums up my reaction to this one.

  8. cbjames says:

    I am a fan of the book, though it did take two tries for me to get through it, and of the movie as well. Since the central premise of the book is flat out impossible, I didn’t pay close attention to the rest of the world-building in Children of Men. That is, I didn’t expect it to be realistic. James is working in the world of parable rather than the world of science fiction.

    It is interesting that both the book and the movie always felt so crowded. Why are there so many people in a story about the slow dying off of the human race?

    All those questions aside, I think the movie is a better movie than the book is a book. If only for the bravado camera work. Those are some of the longest takes you’ll ever see.

    • Teresa says:

      Now, see, that’s interesting, because I want my speculative fiction to be scrupulously realistic, once you set aside the premise. Everything that follows from the premise should seem true to human behavior, or there should be a good reason for the difference. And I’m not sure that the parable, not science fiction argument works here because there’s too much detail for it to feel like a parable to me.

      I absolutely agree about the camera work in the film. I have issues with the film (as I recall, it wore its agenda on its sleeve more than I like), but it’s very well-done.

  9. I am definitely intrigued by the premise but your review makes me think I should pass this one up.

  10. Kathleen says:

    I hate it when a book doesn’t live up to it’s clever premise and this one sounds like it doesn’t.

  11. Ellen Rhudy says:

    I kind of love the movie and after rewatching it recently, and having wanted to read something by James for a while, I decided to read it. I haven’t gotten around to it, and based on your review sounds like I shouldn’t hurry too much. The book sounds so different from the movie than I’m not even sure liking the film is a valid reason for checking out the book. Still, I’d like to read something by James – any suggestions on a better book to start with?

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t remember much about the movie (I haven’t seen it since it was first on DVD), but I don’t think they had much in common besides the premise. I know people who loved the book who were disappointed in the adaptation because of all the differences.

      It’s been so long since I read any of her mysteries that I can’t remember which ones I’ve read–I just remember that I liked them but didn’t feel driven to read them all.

  12. Steph says:

    It’s too bad this book was so uneven, because I do think the premise sounds so interesting. I really love speculative/dystopian fiction, so this does sound right up my alley, but I’m sure I’d share many of your frustrations.

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