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"I thought, if there was no future, how would we behave?" -P. D. James

While P.D. James is assuredly one of the greatest of British mystery writers, this book places her in the exclusive class of authors of great dystopian fictions as well. Though a best-seller simply by virtue of having her name on the cover, the novel seems to have largely disappointed fans looking for another detective tale and by-passed those who don't read such. That's a tragedy because not only is it the literary and intellectual equal of Aerodrome, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, but it is far more pertinent than any but Huxley's to the crises we face today--or, more properly, that Europe faces today: secularism; low fertility rates; anti-immigration hysteria; overbearing government; euthanasia; etc.. The book is labeled science fiction by many, but is more nearly contemporary satire.

The story begins:
Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days.
It is told in the form of chapters that alternate between the diary entries of "Theodore Faron, Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of Merton College in the University of Oxford, historian of the Victorian age, divorced, childless, solitary, whose only claim to notice is that he is cousin to Xan Lyppiatt, the dictator and Warden of England" and third person narration that gives the author more leeway to describe events.

Ms James builds slowly to the main action of the novel, leaving herself plenty of time to toss out ideas. With no children to care for and no future to care about, the people who remain, the Omegas, are completely self-absorbed, pampering themselves physically and turning control of political affairs over to a dictatorship that guarantees their safety.
Luke said gently: "Protection, comfort, pleasure. There has to be something more."

"It's what people care about, what they want. What more should the Council be offering?"

"Compassion, justice, love."

"No state has ever concerned itself with love, and no state ever can."

Julian said: "But it can concern itself with justice."

Rolf was impatient: "Justice, compassion, love. They're all words. What we';re talking about is power. The Warden is a dictator masquerading as a democratic leader. He ought to be made to be responsible to the will of the people."

Theo said: "Ah, the will of the people. That's a fine sounding phrase. At present, the will of the people seems to be for protection, comfort, pleasure."
Well, guarantees it until they're old enough anyway, then they're required to participate in a form of mass suicide called the Quietus. Meanwhile, religion has been totally debased:
During the mid-1990s the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism. [...] Even to unbelievers like myself, the cross, stigma of the barbarism of officialdom and man's ineluctable cruelty, has never been a comfortable symbol.
Criminality, or any deviation from social norms, is punished by being sent to the Isle of Man, which serves as a hyper-darwinian, unsupervised penal colony:
"People have had enough of criminals and criminality. They aren't prepared today to live their lives in fear. [...] You must remember the 1990s, women afraid to walk the streets of their own cities, the rise in sexual and violent crime, old people self-imprisoned in their flats--some burned to death behind their bars--drunken hooligans ruining the peace of country towns, children as dangerous as their elders, no property safe if it wasn't protected with expensive burglar alarms and grilles. Everything has been tried to cure man's criminality, every type of so-called treatment, every regime in our prisons. Cruelty and severity didn't work, but neither did kindness and leniency. Now, since Omega, the people have said to us: "Enough is enough." The priests, the psychiatrists, the psychologists, the criminologists--none has found the answer. What we guarantee is freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom."
And, of course, immigration is tightly restricted -- the fear of those who are different combining with worry that newcomers might eventually outnumber the natives. What really stands out about that litany of social pathologies is how applicable it already is to Europe. The anti-human future that Ms James imagined just a few years ago is rapidly coming to dreadful fruition.

As bleak as this vision is, when Ms James turns to the action of the novel she holds out a flicker of hope. Faron has been largely complacent, like most of his countrymen, but is snapped out of his torpor after witnessing a Quietus and realizing that what people have been told is a voluntary and peaceful ceremony is something quite different. He falls in with a small band of folk who refuse to accept the way things are. They issue a challenge to the nation:
We cannot shut our eyes any longer to the evils in our society. If our race is to die, let us at least die as free men and women, as human beings, not as devils. We make the following demands to the Warden of England.

1. Call a general election and put your policies before the people.
2. Give the Sojourners full civil rights including the right to live in their own homes, to send for their families and to remain in Britain at the end of their contract of service.
3. Abolish the Quietus.
4. Stop deporting convicted offenders to the Isle of Man Penal Colony and ensure that people there can live in peace and decency.
5. Stop the compulsory testing of semen and the examination of healthy young women and shut down the public porn shops.

Eventually they are forced to hide out from the authorities and when one of their number dies the Burial for the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer is read over him and the source of the book's title is revealed:
Lord, thou hast been our refuge, from one generation to another.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.

Thou turnest man to destruction; again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday; seeing that is past as a watch in the night.
And the story ends with the promise that the children of men will come again.

It's a moving and thoughtful book that should be read as universally as its predecessors which really speak to a prior age more than ours. The director Alfonso Cuarón -- who made the last Harry Potter film -- is working on a movie version that's scheduled for release in 2007 and will hopefully revive interest in the book. Though written in 1992, it's the first great novel of the 21st Century.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

P.D. James (2 books reviewed)
Science Fiction & Fantasy
P.D. James Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: P. D. James
-AUTHOR SITE: P. D. James (Random House)
    -Featured Author: P. D. James: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -BIO: PD JAMES (1920-) (Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Murder Most Foul (P. D. James, Paris Review) -INTERVIEW: PD James, Queen of Detective Fiction: Interview: PD James talks to Jake Kerridge about detective fiction, her new book, and the technical problems of murder (Jake Kerridge, 9/26/09, Daily Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW: A Mystery of Iniquity (Modern Age) (PDF)
    -INTERVIEW: Reasons for writing - detective novelists P.D. James (Trudy Bush, Sept 27, 2000, Christian Century)
    -ESSAY: PD James’s detection of the deepest mysteries: We are drawn to detective fiction because it shows that individual crimes can be solved by rational means — confirming our hope that peace and order can be restored from disruption and chaos. (Ralph Wood, Jun 24, 2022, MercatorNet)
-ESSAY: “The uncertain justice of men”: P.D. James’s detection of the deepest mysteries (Ralph C. Wood, 7 Feb 2022, ABC Religion & Ethics)
    -ESSAY: Murder, morals and motives P. D. James at 100 (Rohan Maitzen, TLS)
    -ESSAY: P. D. JAMES: A CRIME READER’S GUIDE TO THE CLASSICS: She refined the crime novel to its dark, poetic core and created a roster of iconic detectives along the way (NEIL NYREN, 7/02/20, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: A case for P.D. James as a Christian novelist (Ralph C Wood, 1/01/03, Theology Today)
    -ESSAY: Deep mysteries - christian liberalism in the works of P.D. James (Ralph C. Wood, Sept 27, 2000, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P. D. James's The Children of Men (Ralph C. Wood, Theology Today)
    -ARCHIVES: FindArticles > All Publications > Results for "p. d. james"
    -ESSAY: Engendering the Apocalypse: Contemporary Visions of the Apocalypse (Marguerite Harkness, Virginia Commonwealth University)
    -ESSAY: An Empty Future? (Roberto Rivera y Carlo, Boundless)
    -REVIEW: of Children of Men (Walter Wangerin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Children of Men (James Sallis, The Los Angeles Times)
    -REVIEW: of Children of Men (S. Mark Heim, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of Children of Men (Penni Crabtree, National Catholic Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of Children of Men (Molly Finn, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of Children of Men (Frederick Meekins, Junto Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Lighthouse by PD James (LUCY HUGHES-HALLETT, Sunday Times of London) FILM:
    -INFO: The Children of Men (2007) (IMDB)
-FILM REVIEW: Children of Men (Simon Matthews, Lion & Unicorrn)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: I Will Never Watch “Children of Men” the Same Way Again: How my feelings about this dystopian film changed after living through a dystopian time (ANNA NORTH, 1/05/21, Electric Lit)
    -ESSAY: The Politics of the Schiavo Case: Losing the battle, winning the war. (Jeffrey Bell & Frank Cannon, 04/04/2005,Weekly Standard)
    -ARTICLE: 'Infertility time bomb' warning (Michelle Roberts, 6/21/05, BBC News)