Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Children of Men by P. D. James

Title: The Children of Men
Author: P. D. James
Publisher: Knopf (1992)

le0pard13 and I had such a good time with our last joint posts that we decided to take on another book that was adapted for the big screen. I'll be giving you the skinny on the book again and you can click on over here for Michael's Children of Men Film/Disc Review.

In The Children of Men no babies have been born since 1995. The year is 2021 and our narrator is Theo, Oxford professor and cousin of the Warden of England, who has decided to keep a journal. James alternates between Theo's first person accounts in his journal and third person perspectives of the story as a whole. In the midst of a deteriorating society, Theo is moderately successful at maintaining a sense of well-being. He lives a deliberately solitary life but an "intriguing" young woman seeks him out for help (I put intriguing in quotes because Theo is very intrigued by her but, even after finishing the book, I'm still not real clear as to why). She hopes he will carry a message from her group, the Five Fishes, to his cousin. The Warden of England is basically a dictator with a committee of advisers. Theo was at one time an adviser to the Warden but he felt his role was ineffectual and left the post 2 years before this story begins.

I think one of the most appealing aspects of this story is that it's set during the crisis. There are lots of stories that end when great changes have been initiated or that pick up after traumatic events - and so we watch the recovery - but in this story we are there as it's happening. The crazy behaviors, hopelessness, despair, etc is all on-going. Do you give up? Do you try to carry on? Is there any point in maintaining moral and ethical codes? How would you behave if the youngest person alive was 26? btw, this aspect is almost all the book and movie have in common. For the most part, the basic story is the same but the action and narrative are very different.

I first read this book back in 2007 after seeing the movie adaptation in the theatre. I loved the movie (and continue to watch it on a regular basis and actually have it playing right now) and was pretty excited to read the book. Well that didn't work out so well as I don't think I even bothered to finish it. So here I find myself giving it another try. I did finish it this time but I still don't think I like it much. The second half is far better than the first so if you should decide to pick this one up it does get better as it goes along.

Alright, let me start with a few reasons why I didn't like it and then go over the good bits. First off, Theo is not very sympathetic. I don't simply mean that he's a bad person (though I think he is) but that he never engaged my interest in any real way. Also, the story is extremely heavy-handed. This, I think, is in direct contrast to the film. As with the last joint post I'm going to save most of my movie comments for lp13's post but this point I will bring up: The movie creates a wonderfully authentic environment that is completely submersivying (new word?) while the book essentially details the environment. There's only the barest attempt for it to reveal itself naturally as the story progresses. It's just paragraph after paragraph listing for me what this world is like. Ugh! Next, in his diary entries, Theo is constantly "wondering now" if this (insert new interpretation) is what was really going on when he's detailing some past event or situation. Was he on stupid pills for the first ~50 years of his life? It becomes clear as the story progresses that he no longer wishes to be quite so solitary so I would buy that he's going through a period of reanalyzing his life but for fuck's sake can he do anything other than "wonder now?" And then, while this didn't necessarily bother me, it was really odd that all sexual overtones (or lack thereof) were detailed for all relationships. I noticed it not only for its frequency but for its lack of relevance. Strange. I was, however, quite bothered by a scene where Theo learns from his cousin (with whom he spent many summers growing up) that his uncle was gay when his response was, "Your father never made any approach to me." What the shit is that? I told you the guy wasn't all that nice. Why would anyone say this? Did he think it was odd that his aunt didn't approach him? She was heterosexual. Theo was a minor and a relative. Why on earth would he be approached? (Cousin Xan sort of misses the point I would have made but says very pointedly, "What an egotist you are.") Ok, last thing and, fair warning, it's the scientist in me that was annoyed at this. There've been no babies born because all males have become sterile. And, somehow, all the sperm in the sperm banks has gone kaput. Like they all have the same expiration date? Come on! Bad call to make this a mysterious happening. I prefer random events used to set up a story to occur off-screen without poorly presented excuses.

Ok, cool stuff: This really is a very cool scenario. Very thought-provoking. The fact that I'd rather have sat around with pals chatting about it for an evening is really neither here nor there so let's stick with the book. Right near the beginning (p. 9 of the hardback I read) the most interesting part of the scenario (to me) is laid out: how do you respond? Can you continue on blithely going about your hobbies and such or do you sink into lassitude at the pointlessness of life? Do you maintain codes of behavior or simply indulge any whim until the end? I think the question is interesting no matter what but I think it may be that I am part of a select group that can really see the irony (or perhaps horror?) in a countdown to the end of time. I am childless by choice and have never really thought there's much purpose to life. Of course this has never depressed me, life is interesting enough without any point. BUT! Oh but! If its pointlessness was billboard huge around every corner then how would I feel? I certainly don't want children but what if there were no children at all? So what that I don't see any greater point to life? I sure do like it, what if there were to be no new life? Whoa! How do you respond? At one point Theo thinks:
If there had been no Omega [youngest generation], these were aims which a man might be prepared to fight for, even to suffer for. But if there had been no Omega, the evils would not exist. It was reasonable to struggle, to suffer, perhaps even to die, for a more just, a more compassionate society, but not in a world with no future where, all to soon, the very words "justice," compassion," "society," "struggle," "evil," would be unheard echoes on an empty air.

We should be just because it is the right thing to do but do we lose that desire to fight for the right things when a better future, any future, is impossible?

There's a very interesting theme that recurs throughout a greater part of the book. The world is falling apart due to lack of fertility yet Theo is constantly remembering how cold his relationship was with his parents. They had no real interest in him nor he in they. It's like this small reminder that we have the liberty to reject fertility due to its very existence but once it's gone liberties are thin on the ground. Personal liberty and the rights that should be preserved in a dying culture are a constant theme in the book. Also, Theo hangs out in museums a lot which amuses me as it reflects what the world in general has become. I think it matches Theo's attitude of ironic objectivity that makes his observations fairly interesting most of the time.

The Warden of England ends up being a pretty interesting character. You see him almost exclusively through Theo's eyes so I assume the view is slightly skewed but the Warden is yet another angle of response. He's mostly a tyrant and has convinced himself that he's doing it all for the greater good. But many of the programs he's instituted are total shit. It's weird, if everything truly is hopeless then why not do the right thing? At this point, what is really to be gained via cruelty and exploitation? But, of course, in the highs and the lows we are still only human and if I could only say one thing regarding what I took away from this book it would be:

Even with no hope of survival, continuity of life, or bettering your situation we still think of ourselves first.

Is it a reflection of personal naivety that I would think when there's nothing left to lose you may as well be nice?

Like I mentioned above it's the latter half of the book that is the most interesting but I want to prevent spoilers so I'll just mention two things, highlight if interested. It was the sperm that was the problem so why were they so protective of the baby-to-be but not the carrier of the good sperm? Seriously! Nobody seemed to care that he died. And, totally awesome to end with Theo taking Xan's ring! Holy shit! He's such a baddie that I can totally see him doing the wrong thing rather than the right and starting Xan's crap cycle all over. Julian (of dubiously intriguing fame) didn't strike me as a particularly strong personality so I don't see her keeping Theo in line. Interesting stuff.

All in all I'd say you get the best of it by watching the movie. You still get the really interesting scenario, an excellent couple hours spent, and plenty of time after to chat with your friends about the fallout from worldwide sterility.

Don't forget to head over to Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for the movie review.

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. sounds like a really grim book.

    the altruism angle is really interesting, especially given the extreme altruism practiced by two of the movie characters (no idea if they're in the book as well) -
    the midwife character who sacrifices herself for the in-labour mother (and what a horrible sacrifice it was) and the scientist in the woods character who sacrifices himself for his senile wife and the title characters (sacrifice equally horrible but quicker). Neither hesitated. For me, it was almost like a pivotal moment in 'The Crying Game' - here, some people refused to lose their humanity no matter how soul-destroying the politico-social environment because, and in TCG, the protagonist refused to descend to terrorist level 'The end justifies the means' logic no matter the cost to himself. In both cases, it seemed like the message was: when it comes down to the crunch, you make your own decision, regardless of which way the peer pressure goes.

  2. oh, and what's next? more dystopian UK? '28 Days Later'? another super depressing film...

  3. One excellent review of this book, Rachel. Since I've not read it, I appreciate the detail you provide, and the differences of the two works. My first thoughts are:

    1. I wonder what drove each work to choose the gender for the reason of the infertility? In the book, it's the male's sterility. For the film, the female's. It doesn't matter in the final analysis--you need both (the sperm and an egg) to produce offspring. Could it be so simple as the gender of the author (female) and the director/writer (male) picking their opposite?

    2. Does Theo being less sympathetic in the novel help drive the narrative, or hinder it? The film's Theo is definitively becomes more agreeable and serves it storytelling very well. A less sympathetic film protagonist, for me, would have sabotaged the end affect.

    3. I love the philosophical point Theo in novel brings to the crisis at hand. The "... but not in a world with no future where, all to soon, the very words "justice," compassion," "society," "struggle," "evil," would be unheard echoes on an empty air." quote really drove that one home.

    The novel and film make for some profound concepts (and discussions) about human nature and society. BTW, I love the way you handle your spoiler text. Elegant.

    Thanks very much for inviting me into this endeavor, in general. And this novel/film, specifically, Rachel.

  4. Nice reviews, and big thanks to both of you!

    To le0pard13's first question, I wonder if it has less to do with any specific gender preferences of the author/director of each work, and more to do with the scientific practicality that Rachel references in her review. Sperm banks are plentiful and well-stocked, while egg storage is pretty uncommon and a bit of a dicey proposition. Plus, clever scientists could probably get offspring out of a combination of two eggs (which carry the vast majority of what is needed to get the whole embryo-phase kicked off), but good luck making anything out of a couple of sperm! Overall, the story might just make more sense if the females were infertile...sad to say that I think the ladies would have a better chance of getting along without us gents than vice-versa.

    Though I agree with you both that it seems odd you'd find the single fertile person on Earth and not treat them as awfully precious. In the now-defunct television show Sliders, there was an episode where the heroes visited a version of Earth in which 99% of the world's men had been killed by a Y-chromosome specific chemical weapon. The remaining men were kept in facilities (often against their will) because they had become too valuable a commodity to allow them freedom. That seems like a more realistic outcome (for admittedly a highly unrealistic situation) to me than casting aside the lone fertile person left on the planet!

  5. M - Hope and altruism were definitely scattered throughout the movie but are virtually absent in the book. The midwife might be the closest thing you'll find to altruism in the book. However, the book is not completely devoid of compassion... it's just rare.

    Good point re making your own decisions. The book makes a very clear point about how people usually make their decisions. Me first... until the bitter end!

    Up next may be A Scanner Darkly. I know we've talked about it. Is 28 Days Later based on a book? I liked the movie.

    lp13 -

    1. I thought Jeff (comment below) had a very nice point about this. Also, does the movie say explicitly whether males or females are sterile? I don't ever recall that it is made clear. I could have missed it though. The book leaves no ambiguity but I don't remember the film ever pointing a finger in either direction.

    2. I thought it hindered it. I needed something to anchor me in the story (like Theo in the film) but I felt like I was adventuring around with a bunch of unreasonable scumbags which made it very hard to care if they survived.

    3. Theo is quite philosophical and some of his theories on why various types of people react the way they do to the crisis is pretty interesting. That's something you can't really do in the film but it was a nice touch in the book.
    (btw, my type, he says, has no imagination:)

    Thanks to you, as well! A Scanner Darkly next?

    Jeff - Excellent point re sterility. I'll pose the question to you as well as to whether or not the movie actually explains who is sterile. You've seen it almost as many times as me so you might remember this better than I do.

    I also agree that whoever proved to have the agile swimmers would not have been treated so poorly.

  6. Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate your point, as well. There is a brief reference to it being the female in the movie by a remark by Jasper:

    "Ok, the Human Project gives this great, big dinner for all the scientists and sages in the world. They're tossing around theories about the ultimate mystery: why are all the women infertile? Why can't we make babies anymore? So, some say it's genetic experiments, gamma rays, pollution, same ol', same ol'. So, anyway, in the corner, this Englishman's sitting, he hasn't said a word, he's just tuckin' in his dinner. So, they decide to ask him, they say, "Well, why do you think we can't make babies anymore?" And he looks up at 'em, he's chewin' on this great big wing and he says "I haven't the faintest idea," he said, "but this stork is quite tasty isn't he?""

    Yes, for A Scanner Darkly in July. Better later in that month as we'll be renovating and moving hopefully ;-). Thanks, Rachel.

  7. Ah yes! heheh, I never took the info as reliable since it was a joke. No reason it wouldn't be though... just my brain at work, I guess. :)

    Late July sounds great! Success in your move!

  8. You always have interesting content, and I enjoy reading your posts very much. So, I have awarded you with The Versatile Blogger award because you deserve it, and as a thank you.