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.