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Book Review: Children of Men by P. D. James

May 11th, 2017 | 6 min read

By Charlie Clark

All dystopian literature aspires to prophecy. Whether or not it aims to predict the future, it imagines worlds in which the evils of our own place and time are drawn out to their logical conclusions. It holds up a mirror for recognition and critique. Its success depends on two main factors: its choice of evils and the credibility of their extension. Thus, while Orwell’s 1984 succeeds as a nightmare, its omnipotent Soviet-style surveillance state is a phantom compared to the consumerist totalitarianism of Huxley’s Brave New World. As the balance of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st have shown, the smart money was always on liberalism. When all that is solid melts into air, don’t bet on an Iron Curtain.

The Children of Men might be more successful still. If Huxley exceeded Orwell by seeing the truth strength of the liberal capitalist order, then P.D. James may triumph over Huxley by seeing the true strength of its contradictions. What Huxley did for an age of expanding opportunity and booming consumer demand, James does for an age of declining expectations and a graying, shrinking populace.

By the time James published her novel in 1992, her native Britain had had a sub-replacement fertility rate for almost twenty years. That is, not enough children were being born to keep the population stable, and demographic decline could only be held at bay by increased lifespans among the elderly and by high rates of immigration from more fertile regions of the world. What was cause for anxiety then has not improved in the years since the novel’s publication, and in fact, has become a crisis in some other countries. For example, there has been a marked trend in Japan of middle-aged children murdering their elderly parents, citing “fear of the future” as their motive.

Set in 2021, The Children of Men imagines a world in which the last human child was born in 1995. During the years immediately following “Omega,” there is a global search for a cause or cure. Yet despite the coordinated efforts of the world’s governments and scientific community, no progress is made and no children are conceived. Gradually, the human race begins to give up hope and settle in for its slow decline to extinction. In the spirit of the genre, this scenario is just an exaggeration of the actual experience of many advanced economies in recent decades. As we explore James’s dystopian Britain from the perspective of Theo, a professor of history (one of the many occupations rendered more or less irrelevant by the eradication of youth), we find many of its troubling features are unpleasantly familiar.

According to James, as a society loses its confidence in the future, it becomes increasingly comfortable with authoritarianism—so long as the authority promises to keep its charges comfortable. In the novel, the British people have yielded their civil liberties to the Warden of England, a dictator who promises “freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom.” But these freedoms come at considerable cost, especially in moral terms.

Freedom from fear is secured by harsh punishment for lawbreakers. Petty criminals and even the mentally ill are banished to a penal colony set up on the Isle of Man, where no sound provision has been made for the maintenance of the prisoners and conditions have devolved into anarchy and a vicious struggle for survival. Despite its brutality, this scheme is generally popular, and the aging citizens have no stomach for either reforming or abolishing it: “[Have the island] policed by whom?... Surely the Council wouldn’t evacuate the island. There would be an outcry—all those murderers and rapists loose again. And aren’t the Broadmoor inmates there too? They’re mad, mad and bad.” Fortunately, a policy of mass incarceration that sweeps up the mentally ill and allows prisons to descend into violent chaos has no parallels in the nonfiction world.

In a similarly unimaginable turn of events, freedom from want is secured by the exploitation of migrant labor. While youthful bodies are in short supply the world over, the Britain of James’s novel is still relatively wealthy and can command the service of the relatively able-bodied from poorer countries. These “Sojourners” perform menial labor for the government and privileged citizens, but receive none of the protections of citizenship themselves and are expelled to their home countries when they reach the age of 60 and are no longer capable of full productivity.

Freedom from boredom seems to be the promise the Warden has the most trouble keeping. With no reason to invest in the future and the delegation of much ordinary labor to Sojourners, there is little to occupy most citizens’ time. Entertainments can only distract so much from the imminent death of the species that saps everyday life of meaning. It is perhaps for this reason that suicide, the ultimate escape from boredom, takes on so much importance in the world of the novel. At regular intervals, the government stages a mass suicide, or “Quietus,” which serves the dual purpose of relieving those oppressed by boredom and lightening the load of support for the elderly and infirm. Of course, in actual fact, government sponsorship of euthanasia is already growing in nations that have seen their fertility rates decline.

Besides the sociopolitical parallels between our world and Theo’s, between low fertility and absolute zero, there’s a sense in which James’s dystopia is a biological metaphor for a spiritual reality. After all, even for people who aren’t literally childless due to a contraceptive culture that delays marriage and childbearing for social and financial reasons, how many people today truly have successors? As Wendell Berry observed in “The Work of Local Culture,” one of the most distinctive features of the modern condition is the alienation of children from parents and parents from children. The universal pattern by which children almost always succeeded their parents in place has been erased: “According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession.”

Berry sees the degree to which economic opportunity has pulled children out of the countryside and into the cities, which is just one dimension of the disruptive influence of the market that prevents children from working in the same places and ways as their parents. But this is the rare case in which Berry is perhaps too optimistic about the modern condition. If the norm of succession and stability had really been displaced by a norm of supersession and upward mobility, then the new arrangement would find many defenders. On the contrary, more and more non-elite parents are watching their children drift away on currents of downward mobility.

The Children of Men proposes that in the absence of any legacy, many of the ordinary and healthy patterns of human life lose their meaning and appeal. Succeeding generations, whether direct descendants or not, are essential to a meaningful legacy. Consider how many elders have no substantial inheritance to pass on to the next generation, whether because proletarianization has left them without property or because technological disruption has rendered old knowledge apparently worthless. Consider how many parents see their children struggle to find gainful employment, or worse, see them sink into addiction. Consider the strain put on relationships between parents, children, and grandchildren by multiple generations of divorce, remarriage, and other elements of family dissolution. None of this anxiety is captured by the biological fertility rate, which fails to capture the extraordinary degree to which the denizens of advanced economies have stopped reproducing themselves.

James is a Christian and a humanist, and her novel practically demands to be read theologically. The title finds its source in James’s Anglican tradition, in the Burial Service, which is actually quoted in the text: “thou art God from everlasting, and world without end. Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, come again, ye children of men.” As Theo is drawn into a small resistance, The Five Fishes, who defy the Warden to advocate for prisoners, Sojourners, and the victims of euthanasia, we see this act of repentance issue in something very like divine intervention. If we find the dystopia is already amongst us, we must hope that repentance will be met with deliverance here too.

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Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark is the executive director of the Eleazar Wheelock Society.