“I thought, if there was no future, how would we behave?” P.D. James
This week I will be discussing the novel The Children of Men by P.D. James. The novel tells the story of a dystopian world where no children have been born for twenty-five years. James questions what would happen in a world with no future for humanity. This book has interesting real world relevance today and gives and insight to the true nature of humanity. I would recommend it.
P.D. James was born in Oxford, England on August 3, 1920. Her father was a tax inspector. She went to Cambridge High School for Girls until age 16, when she had to drop out to support her family and because her family didn’t believe in higher education for girls. She was married in 1941 and had two daughters. Her husband returned from World War II and suffered mental illness because of it. Because her husband was in a psychiatric institution, James studied hospital administration and worked for a hospital board in London. She began writing in the mid-1950s and her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. James is known for her detective mystery novels. She diverted from this theme with The Children of Men, published in 1992. That book was adapted for film in 2006, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, although it differed greatly from the novel. James died on November 27, 2014 at the age of 94.
In 2021, the world is slowly ending. The men have become infertile and no babies have been born since 1995. The world has become bleak, where providing for posterity has ceased to give life its point and the goal instead is short-term comfort and entertainment. England is ruled by a dictatorial Warden and supervised by the State Security Police. The last-born children are called Omegas, beautiful and talented but cruel and powerful. James brings up the notion that if you treat children from infancy as gods, they will act as devils in adulthood.
The novel focuses on Theo Faron, a 50-year-old Oxford history professor. He no longer has any children of his own, he ran over his daughter in a tragic accident years ago and his wife never forgave him. He is cousin to Xan, the Warden of England and used to be a close adviser to the Warden until he left because he couldn’t handle the abuse of power.
Here, James explores how certain kinds of tyrants come to exist. The social disorder and pessimism have allowed Xan to seize control. The shame of the Parliament gives illusion of democracy and the members of the ruling Council never disagree with Xan. This type of ruling is presented to the public and accepted as strong and desirable response to threats to the country. The countries of the world are more defensive than ever to keep their country running smoothly for as long as possible, even if that involves causing the ruin of other countries. This spikes anti-immigration sentiment, which is eerily similar to today. The Warden focuses on England at the expense of everyone else. The government justifies abuse in the name of a smoothly run society. It supports and encourages forced labor of immigrants and encourages the mass suicides of the old. When Theo questions Xan’s tyranny, Xan responds that at first he did it because he thought he’d enjoy it and eventually no one else was competent to take over. After Theo calls Xan out for his cruel rule, he responds, “Have you ever known anyone to give up power?” Here James raises an interesting notion on the idea of power, especially in government. Xan justifies his complete power on the basis that no one really cares anymore. No one votes because it doesn’t matter. Absolute power is the only answer here because democracy can’t function if its people don’t pay attention and care. James also questions how tyrants come to be. They do not come to exist overnight. By the time people realize that the dictatorship is a problem, Xan has too much power to be stopped.
Theo wanders through life without purpose until he is approached one day by a young woman, who asks him to meet with her group called the Five Fishes. The group aims to erase human rights abuses and restore democratic government. Intrigued by this young woman Theo reluctantly agrees to help. Theo falls in love with Julian, marking his first real human feeling in years. The readers later learn that the woman, Julian, is pregnant. Julian wants to keep her baby away from the government, who she believes will only use the child for their own power, but the government has a clear interest in the first baby in 25 years. This begins the action of the novel with the Five Fishes plus Theo on the run from Xan. With clear allusion to the Bible and the Virgin Mary, Julian’s baby represents redemption and a real future.
James distills the problems in life down to the simple. Value the small miracles of life.
This book was also turned into a film in 2006.
I highly recommend this book especially with its clear parallels to today’s society.