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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.