Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

Book Review: The Children of Men

9780307275431The year is 2021, and the human race is coming to an end. Literally. And we’re going out, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

No children have been born since 1995 due to mass infertility among males: an infertility which all the powers of science can neither understand nor reverse. The last generation to be born is now adult, and the population is growing steadily, inexorably older. England is supervised by a dictatorial Warden and the SSP (State Security Police). Brutal prison camps, forced labor, and roving thugs bear witness to the deterioration of society, as does “the Quietus” – an organized slaughter of the elderly, staged to look like mass suicide.

Theodore Faron – Oxford historian and also cousin to the all-powerful Warden – watches in despair as the world around him crumbles in the face of a future that is no future. But in the midst of his drab day to day routine, he’s approached by Julian, a bright young woman who asks for his help in getting an audience with the Warden. Julian and her band of revolutionaries may just revive Theo’s will to live – and they may also hold the key to salvation for all mankind.

P.D. James is best known for her detective fiction, but The Children of Men proves that her talent isn’t restricted to one genre. This is dystopian science fiction of the highest caliber – beautifully written, engaging, and profound – and I trust I don’t overstate my case when I say it’s more than strong enough to stand with the towering achievements of Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury.

First and foremost, The Children of Men is a biting critique of our own godless, self-absorbed culture. The irony here is perfect: the world of 2021 is dying because it got exactly what it wanted – sexual pleasure without the “risk” of children. If you’re be tempted to think society would welcome such an arrangement with open arms, think again. James proposes something different:

Sex has become the least important of man’s sensory pleasures. One might have imagined that with the fear of pregnancy permanently removed, and the unerotic paraphernalia of pills, rubber and ovulation arithmetic no longer necessary, sex would be freed for new and imaginative delights. The opposite has happened. Even those men and women who would normally have no wish to breed apparently need the assurance that they could have a child if they wished. Sex totally divorced from procreation has become almost meaninglessly acrobatic… Sex can still be a mutual comfort; it is seldom a mutual ecstasy. The government-sponsored porn shops, the increasingly explicit literature, all the devices to stimulate desire – none has worked. Men and women still marry, although less frequently, with less ceremony and often with the same sex. People still fall in love, or say that they are in love. There is an almost desperate searching for the one person, preferably younger but at least one’s own age, with whom to face the inevitable decline and decay. We need the comfort of responsive flesh, of hand on hand, lip on lip. But we read the love poems of previous ages with a kind of wonder.

Equally striking is the book’s pervasive use of Christian imagery. The title itself is an allusion to Psalm 90:3, and James’ narrative bears a marked resemblance to the Nativity story. And is it a mere fluke that the penal colony on the Isle of Man is depicted as a place of deep darkness and debauchery? Hardly, I think.

Make no mistake: this is a deeply theological novel, wrestling with deeply theological questions. I would even go so far as to call it a Christian novel, though not of the preachy, Bible-thumping, God-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life variety. James’ (a devout Anglican, from what I hear) is much too good for that, and the way she weaves Christian ideas into the story is so seamless, so artful, that the lazy reader may not even catch on. It’s as if she were bearing in mind the words of Francis Schaeffer: “A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God; not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.”

Ralph Wood, who has written extensively about James and her work, published an essay on The Children of Men back in 1994. He made this observation:

The key to P. D. James’s fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause… Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt… James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.

I’m going to end this review with two cautions. First, this is not a book for younger readers, due to sexual themes, violence, and some strong language. James never goes into lurid or sensual detail, but she doesn’t whitewash anything either. This isn’t a tale for the squeamish or easily unsettled.

Second, do not, I repeat, do not watch the movie.

Alfonso Cuarón adapted The Children of Men for the silver screen in 2006, but the resulting film bears little resemblance to the source material – I know because I’ve seen it. They share the title, the futuristic setting, the basic premise, and that’s about it. Cuarón’s approach is far more sanitized, far less Christian, and rooted in a politically-correct agenda. Characters are erased or reinvented (Jasper as a weed-smoking ex-Hippie? Please). The terrors of universal childlessness are overshadowed by a right-wing totalitarian regime obsessed with border control (take that, George W!). Euthanasia and suicide are “cleaned up” (and even subtly condoned). And the Christian characters and themes are replaced by an Ode to Man As the Savior of Himself (which is much easier for most people to stomach).

Cuarón has learned much from the Hollywood left. But from James? Not much at all.

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Book Review: 1984

The year itself has come and gone, but Orwell’s book is still with us. And it’s as terrifying as ever.

The premise is so well known that there’s little need for an in-depth explanation on my part. 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a poor stiff who pursues an illicit love affair in a world of constant war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation and deception. Life in this futuristic hell might be summed up in five simple words:

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. 

I have yet to compile my top ten list for fiction read this year; but I can guarantee you this book will be on it. As political fiction and dystopian sci-fi, it is almost without peer – a brilliantly written and thoroughly nightmarish vision of “negative utopia” even more relevant today than when it was written.

Some have called it a satire as well, but that strikes me as rather misleading. Satire is generally humorous, or at the very least, amusing. 1984 is neither. I’ve also heard people interpret it is merely as another indictment of Stalinist savagery. How pitiful. They do not see that it is a warning to us, too.

There is so much discussion-worthy material here that I hardly know where to begin. It’s a book you could write books about. In Orwell’s world,

I saw individuality crushed in favor of mindless dependency on the state.

I saw perpetual war and desensitization to violence.

I saw the indoctrination of young minds, the turning of children against parents.

I saw the rape of language and the destruction of words.

I saw a heavy emphasis on “statistics” and the reduction of man to a number.

I saw the distortion of marriage and the degradation of sex.

I saw the falsification of the past, the disarmament of the people.

I saw worship of the state replace worship of God.

In short, I saw a world that began and ended with man. Where there was nothing outside of man. Where man made his own truth. It really was one hell of a world.

Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of a world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will not grow less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman, No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. (pp. 266-267)

And through all of this, the words of Chesterton kept running through my head:

Once abolish God, and the Government becomes God. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.

From the opening sentence to final four words, 1984 is disturbing and believable. It is disturbing because it is believable. As I read it, I thought, Thank God I’m a Calvinist. What comfort to know that no matter what happens, no matter how badly we mess things up, God still sits upon His holy throne, sovereign and immovable. William Law said it well: “There is no foundation for comfort in the enjoyments of this life, but in the assurance that a wise and good God governeth the world.”