The Children of Men is a work of dystopian fiction with religious overtones. PD James steps out of her usual realm of detective novels/mysteries to ponder what happens to relationships (among people, between people and government, between individuals and God) when the end of the world is immanent.
In 2021, it has already been 35 years since the last live human birth. For reasons that science has not been able to explain, humans worldwide have been unable to reproduce; they are simply no longer fertile. The world’s population is aging, and in England, a dictator known as the Warden rules with his council of five, providing protection, comfort and pleasure — at least for some. Theo Faron, historian and cousin to Warden Xan Lyppiatt, is 50, a loner and alone. He has spent his life assiduously avoiding any kind of relationship that would require him to be dependable and responsible. His marriage is over, his child is dead, and college life is slowly but surely dying. Unexpectedly, a young woman accosts him after a church service and asks to speak with him. Theo finds himself drawn into a conspiracy with revolutionary implications and, possibly, redemption for Theo and humankind.
The world that James has created is grim and depressing. With no children around for decades, schools have been repurposed, playgrounds dismantled. Children’s books and toys, with the exception of dolls, have disappeared. Some women keep dolls and treat them as children or raise cats as children, even having them christened. The elderly are encouraged to participate in ceremonies known as “quietus,” i.e., state-supported mass suicide. Physically and mentally healthy men and women are subjected to regular testing for fertility in the hopes of some sort of miracle. Order is maintained through brutal security measures, with criminals of all kinds being incarcerated together on a remote penal colony on the Island of Man, where chaos reigns. Imported slave laborers, called Sojourners, do the dirty work of England, caring for the elderly and ill, doing hard physical labor. The Omegas, the last generation, the young ones, are beautiful but harsh and cruel. They have been pampered and given everything, which only feeds their arrogance. The Warden and his Council are very popular among the masses for maintaining order and providing comfort; there is food, electricity, entertainment. People are assured that they will be safe until the end.
Theo, when we meet him, is simply existing. He seems to have accepted fate and as we learn from his personal flashbacks, much of his fate has to do with his own personal decisions. We learn about his childhood summers with his cousin Xan. They were close and enjoyed many good times together even though they had different ambitions. Xan included Theo as an advisor to his council, but Theo felt useless there and left, much to the delight of council members. We also learn about Theo’s marriage and the fate of his daughter. Theo has been a disaffected and somewhat alienated man; he is resigned to the seeming fate of the world until a chance meeting with Julian, a young woman who briefly attended one of his seminars, shakes him up. Julian is part of a small revolutionary group, the Five Fishes, who want to change the system: eliminate quietus, get rights for Sojourners, reform the penal colony, end fertility testing and bring back democratic government. Julian hopes that Theo can help them by getting them an audience with Xan. Theo is skeptical that 1) he can get them a meeting and 2) any kind of change could ever occur anyway. He tells Julian that he will observe a quietus and then let her know if he will help. This unleashes a series of events that will transform Theo and involve him in great danger and violence as he falls in love with Julian.
The great question that James poses the reader is what should we pursue in life: comfort and protection or justice and compassion? Toward which side should one err? Theo, ever the voice of reason and a doubter, sees no reason to struggle and die for a more just society when it is dying anyway. He points out that in 15 years, 90% of England’s population will be over the age of 80, and many of the issues the Five Fishes are fighting for will be irrelevant. Julian, the voice of faith, responds that she must fight for justice and compassion, that it is better to die having lived as human beings and not as Devils.
James’ incorporation of Biblical images in her story is done in a subtle rather than heavy handed or slavish manner. She gives us persecution and flight, self-sacrifice, betrayal, and a few other fine scenes that cannot be mentioned for fear of spoiling the plot. As Theo begins to change his way of thinking, he offers this quote, which is reminiscent of the obstacles facing the early Christians:
…the whole situation was one of paradox. Could ever aims and means have been so mismatched? Had there ever been an enterprise of such immense importance embarked upon by such frail and pathetically inadequate adventurers?
The end of the novel took me a bit by surprise, especially for a dystopian novel. I think it would generate some lively discussion in a group. One character comments, “So it begins again.” I believe “it” could refer to more than one thing. And is this a matter for rejoicing or for concern? Perhaps we should consider that every day, while the world is dying, we have an opportunity to begin again, to right wrongs, to worry less about personal comfort and more about justice. To live as human beings and not Devils. That’s something worth pondering these days.