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