Children of Men


P. D. James


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

January 12, 2008

hildren of Men started off as a very fine book. James describes a world in which all human males have suddenly become infertile. No explanation is offered for this phenomena, other animals seem to be as fertile as ever, so the cause could not be a blast of cosmic rays from space. James mentions that even the sperm banks have been rendered infertile, so couldn't have been a disease. What about men working in mines, in polar regions, or on long voyages on nuclear submarines? Apparently all were rendered infertile by the unidentified cause.

Despite the lack of explanation (I kept thinking of other questions - why didn't the humans try cloning? What about the frozen embroyos at fertility clinics), James does an excellent job describing an aging society with no children. It has been roughly 25 years since the infertility struck, and England (as well as the rest of the world) will soon perish. The story is told by Theo Faron, a middle-aged professor who now teaches adult education classes since there are no more students. He describes an nation in which pornography stores are owned by the government (This point didn't make any sense to me - if everyone is infertile, what is the point of the government trying encourage more sexual activity? And why has the sex drive diminished for everyone in England - everyone knows that humans well beyond their child-bearing years remain sexually active.) There are mass suicide events, called the Quietus - which are run by the government - but instead of all deaths being voluntary, Theo observes a Quietus and learns that not all the participants are willing. The Quietus was another plot point that bothered me - why would the government be killing off unwilling citizens? Even if they are infirm and a "burden on society", it's not like the government has to invest in a military, in infrastructure or schooling or a myriad other traditional responsibilities. What is the point of killing off people, if all humans are going to perish in a few decades any way? Why are there any suicides? It's not like childless couples kill themselves now.

The democratic government has been dissolved, and now England is ruled by The Warden, who happens to be Theo's cousin. Theo used to serve as his counselor, but resigned a few years ago, there are several chapters at the start of the book that describe a young Theo spending summers at the wealthy estate of his cousin. (For some reason, the book alternates between first and third person, some of the chapters are told as diary entries written by Theo, other chapters are told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator.)

Overall, the first half of the book is interesting. James describes an infertile world, and it is an interesting idea to think about. But in the second half of the book, James falls flat. The second half of the book describes Theo's involvement with a group of five revolutionaries, who oppose The Warden's rule, but they are mostly a pathetic bunch. The revolutionaries want to close the porn shops (why, if no one goes anyway?). The revolutionaries want halt mandatory sperm testing (why? Anyone can skip their appointment without consequence!). They decide to blow up flimsy wooden docks used by people to board ships for the Quietus - but why are special temporary docks so necessary any way?

The second half of the book is marred by completely mindless violence. Theo and the revolutionaries are driving on a dark deserted road in the middle of the night when they are set upon by group of thugs. Imagine thugs camping by the side of the empty country road, night after night, just waiting for a car to show up - if it is violence they want, why not just go into town and murder someone? Fortunately for Theo, the thugs only kill one person per carload (why? Well, it is convenient for the plot.) So Theo and the surviving revolutionaries escape.

It turns out Julian (one of the female revolutionaries) is pregnant! A miracle! Everyone in the nation will treat her and her child with awe. But Julian insists on having the baby in some hidden woodshed, rather than a modern hospital. You see, it is important that the child not be born under the care of the Warden, even though immediately after the child is born it will be tended and cared for by the Warden. Does that make any sense? People start killing people, and there is no reason for any of the deaths. I kept asking myself while reading this book: Why?

P. D. James could have had a real classic story here, something along the lines of A Canticle for Leibowitz or This is the Way the World Ends - both bleak pictures of humanity's future, but terrific novels. But James' storytelling does match her world building, and the result is a disappointing story. Too bad.