The Children of Men by P.D. Jamesis the story of a dystopian earth, set 25 years after the human race stopped giving birth. Like most good dystopian fiction The Children of Men gets to the big picture by focusing on the small one, the individual. In this case Theo, a 50 something university professor and cousin of the Warden of England who rules a dying society with an iron hand. Theo has taught his last real student as have all teachers, all day care centers, all Sunday schools. Now he holds a few classes in Victorian history for a dwindling number of bored middle aged women, all looking to fill the emptiness in their lives that children once filled.
During the first half of the book, Omega, James shows us what the world would be like without children. Through Theo’s first person narrative and several chapters of third person narration, we see the complete structure of James’s dystopian future. This sort of speculation is what makes dystopian fiction, and utopian fiction, fun. Just what would people do in this situation? Toy makers, of course, go out of business, except for doll makers who enjoy a boom in business selling very realistic dolls to the childless who push them around public parks in prams pretending the dolls are real. This trend does not last long though. Others become obsessed with raising cats, which they take into abandoned churches to christen as though they were children. The last generation of children, the Omegas, are practically worshiped as gods and grow up to be uncaring, unfeeling devils. Since there are no children to pass anything on to, there is little motive to preserve history and not much reason to work at all beyond keeping oneself alive. The Warden of England has been voted into office to keep crime at bay, to protect the people; no one is concerned that their own civil liberties have been sacrificed.
Except for a handful of rebels. Halfway through the novel, Theo is approached by a former student who asks him to meet with his cousin, the Warden, and to state their case to him. They want an end to forced fertility testing, to the use of foreign labor, to the penal colony on the Isle of Man and a return to democratic elections. Theo agrees but finds his cousin unwilling to change anything.
In the second section of the book, Alpha, Theo discovers that one of the rebels is pregnant. Because her baby will be the first one in a quarter century, the rebels believe that the Warden will seize her in order to use the baby to increase his hold on England and extend his power into the rest of the world. The mother-to-be, Julian, wants her baby to be born free, free of the Warden, free of prying doctors, free of the state police. Theo joins the rebels as they try to escape the city and the state police in order to find a safe place for the baby to be born.
The Children of Men is a fascinating, tautly written thriller. The first section of the book, while really more of a speculative travelogue, is filled with suspense. Theo has secrets of his own that are revealed to the reader as he writes his journal and as he goes deeper into the rebellion against the state his cousin controls. The second half is a more traditional thriller, filled with escapes and near escapes, betrayals and plots, that keep the reader glued to the page. Throughout the book there is a humanity that lifts the story above its genre. A childless future is frightening to contemplate, but it gets at certain primal feelings, primal fears; it’s one of those things that seem like one has always thought of but never thought of. Dystopian, just like utopian fiction, must be read as either a warning or a parable, the readers must interpret meaning for themselves. The Children of Men may mean different things to different readers, but it’s a book that stays with the reader, long after the last page has been read.
If you’re someone who has seen the movie but never read the book, you should give it a try. The reverse is true. While the movie is faithful to the book, it’s different enough to make both worth experiencing. Reading the book won’t just be a written account of the movie with more detailed descriptions. They each offer their own perspective on the same material.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. Children of Men was one of my top ten favorites for the year back in 2008.