The Children of Men
For about 60 years novelists have been in a heated competition to deliver the nastiest future. You can choose soulless technocracy (Brave New World), a totalitarian boot in your face (1984), or some postnuclear or postmodern wasteland (On the Beach). P.D. James, the British writer known for her mysteries and for her novel of twisted family loyalties, Innocent Blood, has entered the crowded dystopia field with a placid version of the future, all the more placid because there are no children and no future.
The year is 2021, and no babies have been born since 1995, known as the Omega year, when all the men in the world mysteriously became sterile. At first there was panic, violence, and demoralization. But in Britain order has been restored by a pragmatic dictator who calls himself Warden of England. He keeps the trains running on time and has sent all the criminals to the Isle of Man, where they stew in their own lethal juice. The state runs porn shops to revive the flagging interest in sex, just in case. Burdensome old people are forced into collective suicide. Amid fields reverting to forest and emptying towns, the mood is numb resignation broken only by wandering flagellants who try, as was done during the medieval Black Death, to appease God by flogging one another, and by the mischief of the spoiled Omegas, the last generation to be born.
Five people decide that if the human race is going to go out, it should go out decently, and they rebel against the Warden’s funereal rationalism. The skeptical narrator, an Oxford historian who is the Warden’s cousin, is reluctantly drawn into the conspiracy. The result, thanks to two devoutly Christian members of the group, is a revelation. James, an Anglican, turns her science-fiction plot, like one of C.S. Lewis’, into a Christian allegory. But it would take more than a reviewer’s supply of grace to absolve the pious plot of its sins; it is trite, contrived, and maudlin. The Children of Men can be read as a sometimes tough indictment of contemporary social and spiritual lapses, but maybe it’s time for novelists to consign the future to the past. C