No 462 The Children of Men by PD James

What happens when real life catches up with dystopian fiction? 

The Children of Men is set in 2021 – yes, just one year from now – where the world has been blighted with mass infertility. No child has been born in 25 years, despite mandated fertility testing. The youngest generation are called the ‘Omegas’ – prized for their youth and given luxurious lifestyles – but they are spoiled and violent and care only for themselves.

As Omegas aren’t expected to work, immigrants from poorer countries are brought in to England to do manual work, then sent back to their countries when they turn 60. The old and infirm, particularly the poor old and infirm, are considered a burden, and rather than being cared for in their final years, are encouraged to commit suicide in unnerving mass drownings called The Quietus. The country is run by the Warden and his State Police and criminals are sent to an isolated penal colony on the Isle of Man, famous for violence, intimidation and disappearances.

The Children of Men is written, in part, through diary entries of Theo Faron, a fifty-year-old Oxford professor who also happens to be the cousin of the Warden of England and was once in his inner circle. One day he is approached by a young woman named Julian who wants him to meet her group – the Five Fishes – and then speak to the Warden on their behalf asking for an end to the human rights abuses and the restoration of a democratic government.

They have approached Theo because of his family connection to the Warden and at first he seems like the least likely person to help such a subversive organisation. A divorced historian, he is self-regarding, centred on his own comfort and surprisingly unaffected by the fact that he was the accidental killer of his own child.

His involvement with the group grows when he witnesses the horror of a Quietus for himself, begins to develop feelings for Julian and finally realises that Julian is pregnant and therefore the miraculous future of the whole human race.

It was easier for him to kneel, so he knelt, unselfconsciously, not thinking of it as a gesture of homage but knowing he should be on his knees. He placed his right arm round her waist and pressed his ear against her stomach. He couldn’t hear the beating heart, but he could hear and feel the movements of the child, feel its life. He was swept by a tide of emotion which rose, buffeted and engulfed him in a turbulent surge of awe, excitement and terror, then receded, leaving him spent and weak.

The Children of Men, despite its end-of-the-world scenario and dramatic events, is a slow burn of a novel which didn’t totally work for me. Theo is a particularly unlikeable character – a trait I have no problem with in and of itself – but his conversion from self-centred middle-class elite to romantic saviour of mankind never fully convinced me.

What I did enjoy was how James powerfully imagined a world where there are no children and no babies, and where youth is only a remembered state. The small details create a devastating scenario; dolls pushed around in prams, recordings of boy’s choirs played in college chapels, christenings for kittens and the resurgence in popularity of Australian soap Neighbours, because of its depiction of simple, sun kissed youth.

At one time it wasn’t possible to walk down the High Street without being encumbered by their prams, by groups of admiring quasi-mothers. He seemed to remember that there had even been pseudo-births and that broken dolls were buried with ceremony in consecrated ground.

These substitute satisfactions are meagre yet sustaining and vividly depict this aging world and emphasise just what has been lost.

The best dystopian fiction, for me, needs to be believable, and that is what James does well here. The book deals subtly with a wide range of themes; aging, immigration and social justice, but for me the actual plot just wasn’t as compelling as the world in which it was set. The pacing can, at times, be slow and I never engaged with Theo enough to really care about what was going to happen.

James does well though, to give the book an ambiguous ending. There is an offer of hope, but also a creeping sense that, regardless of good intentions, nothing will change.  


Reading Roulette The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

36 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I purchased this title many, many years ago solely because it was written by P.D. James. I was surprised at the time that it was not the crime fiction I expected. However, it is one of her most memorable novels and remains with me after all this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I did love this book, though I agree the protagonist isn’t the most likeable. Have you seen the film, Cathy? I loved that as well, and it differs somewhat from the book. Terrifying scenario, and thought-provoking I felt, regarding things like the value of art if there’s no one to pass it on to


  3. I wasn’t a huge fan of the book either (though same as you, those snippets of mothers pushing dolls and animals in strollers stuck with me) but the movie is a masterpiece, if you haven’t seen it, you must. Theo is a lot better (and, you know, he’s Clive Owen, which helps)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I never knew she wrote anything other than crime; dystopian fiction seems a big departure for her and maybe not entirely successful based on your reaction. The premise sounds chilling but the execution clearly leaves a lot to be desired.


  5. I’d forgotten all about this one but that cover is so familiar from my bookselling days. I often wondered whether James’ many crime fans were disapointed when they started reading it. Some of it seems almost prescient giving our ageing society.


  6. This is a very even-handed review, Cathy, giving praise where its due, but I agree it’s a bit sedate in places. A flawed portrait of a dystopian society but no less disturbing for that.


  7. Is this the source novel for Cuaron’s film, the one with Clive Owen and Julianne Moore? I wasn’t ware that it had been based on something by P.D. James, a writer I associate with crime rather than dystopian fiction. Sorry to hear you found it a bit underwhelming…


  8. I started to watch the film on Netflix a couple of months ago, but stopped myself because I wanted to read it first and thought I might order the book. Amazingly, I then found the book itself in the tiny selection of English books at my local secondhand shop; it was obviously meant to be. And now I know it’s set in 2021, I shall save it until then. Incidentally, Japan recently decided to fund IVF due to their drastically falling birth rate…


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