Thursday, March 01, 2007

Books: The Children of Men by P.D. James

The Children of Men
by P.D. James


Quickie Synopsis: Set in the not-too-distant future of 2021, Children of Men tells of a time when humans have become sterile, science has failed to find a cause or a cure, and no children have been born for twenty-five years. The Warden of England holds the country from chaos by promising security, comfort, and pleasure through a thinly-veiled dictatorship as civilization fades into old age. Theodore Faron, the Warden's cousin, is one of the apathetic masses until he is approached by a group of rebels eager to change the system. Initially reluctant to help, Theo is drawn further and further into their plans and finds a passion awaking in him that he thought he'd lost long ago.

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I have a border-line obsession with stories of the apocalypse. Give me a good end-of-the-world novel (or movie or art show or podcast or...you get the idea) and I'll cancel all appointments, hole myself in my apartment, and refuse food and drink until I've finished devouring it. Good apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic books are hard to find--both because there aren't that many that have been written and also because they often get shuffled into other, misnomer categories and are hard to find. By my definition, apocalyptic books are NOT stories of utopian or dystopian societies. They are not science fiction (by my definition, anyway). They do not involve any society other than humankind or take place on any world other than Earth. The events being described do not happen more than fifty years in the future. The best stories of apocalypse deal specifically with the end or near-end of the human race and could happen at any time to any society--The Stand by Stephen King, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and the movie 28 Days Later are primo examples of this.

At the root of my obsession is an insatiable curiosity for how humans behave when all the trappings of 'normal' society are stripped away. We humans cling so tightly to arbitrary ways of defining ourselves and our place in society--ideas of ourselves as doctors and housewives and baristas and public-transit-commuters and radical thinkers and protesters and parents and nerds and food critics on and on and on. What happens when all these labels become meaningless? What is there to protest when there is no more government? Why collect money when there is nothing left to buy or no one left to sell it to you? How do you find food when you've only bought frozen dinners from the grocery store your entire life? What happens if you have any kind if disability and were dependent on technology to function? How will you spend your days when life is about survival instead of toeing the line? How do you define yourself when you are no longer being marketed to or pigeon-holed or compared against? I find these questions fascinating. I am obsessed with knowing all the possible permutations of the human spirit within this kind of vacuum.

And it was with this level of exuberance and fascination that I approached Children of Men. I hadn't heard of this book before previews for the movie started airing and everyone at the Noodle Factory was gibbering about it. A friend of the Engineer's who works in movies saw a sneak preview and declared that this would become a seminal movie for how humans think about the future, and that we would look back on it decades from now and see how the ideas from this movie came to pass. And thus my excitement grew.

As is my habit, I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie, and was delighted when I discovered that the original book had been written by P.D. James, an award-wining British mystery novelist. She is most well-known for her Adam Dalgliesh series, which was turned into a well-respected BBC mini-series. Her mysteries tend to be highly-detailed and fast-paced, and James imbues her characters with genuine ethos as she propels them through the twists and turns of her novels. When the killer is revealed in the grand finale, it's often done in the way you'd least expect with a twist that gives readers cause for genuine reflection.

I wasn't surprised that I'd never heard of Children of Men. It was written in 1992 (which was a whole different century, after all), doesn't fit in with her mystery-novel repertoire or appeal to her fan-base, and also....well...it just isn't any good. It was really, utterly, tragically disappointing. How some crazy script-writer or director came across it and decided to make it into a movie, I'll never know. Actually, they were probably going through all of P.D. Jame's novels and wondered why no one had made it into a movie yet. I'll tell you why--because it would take a script writer or director of singular creative genius to find the diamond in the rough in this book. I've heard such stellar things about the movie from people who's taste I trust that I can't WAIT to see the adaptation.

The first half of the book focuses entirely on Theodore Faron, our main character and apocalyptic hero. He has just turned fifty and is ruminating about his life and the deteriorating state of humankind. As a historian, he feels himself somewhat removed from the events going on around him. His voice as the narrator is clinical and detached, and his observations are unemotional and objective. He is approached by a representative of a small group of rebels and asked to represent their concerns to the dictatorial Warden of England, who happens to be Theodore's cousin. Theodore has little interest in what he considers to be their juvenile grievances and initially dismisses them in disdain. He is only convinced to talk to his cousin after he witnesses a government-organized and theoretically voluntary mass suicide for elderly men and women. Theodore's attempt to communicate with the Warden is clumsy, ill-prepared, and ultimately ineffective. Theodore's momentary enthusiasm for action subsides back into depression.

In the second half of the book, Theodore is once again approached by the rebel group, now calling themselves the Five Fishes, and this time he is asked to provide protection. One of the members, Julian, has become miraculously pregnant and the group needs Theodore's help because he is ostensibly the only man in Britain who can keep Julian from falling under the control of the Warden (a thin premise). Lucky for young Julian, Theodore has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her, even overcome his own apathy. What ensues is an unimaginative race through the English country side as the group tries to evade detection, meets with bands of feral humans, scavenges for supplies, and is ultimately hunted down. The climactic scene is so goofy that I don't even mind spoiling it for you--Julian's baby is born, and then Theodore kills the Warden, assumes his place, and wins Dame Julian's affection. Nice. And. Tidy. Barf.

The main characters are particularly disappointing. Theodore has heroic potential, but his transformation from cold observer to humanitarian hero is poorly conceived and unbelievable. Julian and the other Five Fishes are all caricatures of themselves. Each plays out a specific symbolic personality whose literary history can be easily traced through the great (and far greater) works of literature that precede this one and whose permutations have been long exhausted. The Warden is probably the most intriguing and well-written character in the book. He is multi-faceted and has a depth of spirit with which readers can truly empathize. Unfortunately, inconsistencies in his character keep him from being truly believable and trustworthy. (Why why WHY would P.D. James think that at this stage of the apocalypse, the Warden would still be testing only the fertility of those humans he deemed "healthy" and not ALL humans regardless of their mental or physical impairments or their criminal record? A character as smart and survival-oriented as the Warden would recognize that the end of humanity is not the time to practice eugenics. It baffles me.)

The only reason for reading this book at all is for the novelty of it's apocalyptic vision. The idea that no more children are being born and that the human race will just slowly fade into obscurity is a unique idea worth considering. Every other apocalyptic book I've read assumes that the end will happen relatively quickly and without a lot of advanced warning: nuclear annihilation, a super-plague that sweeps around the world and leaves bodies piled on street corners, uncontrollable tidal waves or earthquakes or meteors. One day everything is fine; next day, no more humans. With an apocalyptic event like this, humans can only react and survive as best they can. In a scenario like the one in Children of Men, the apocalypse evolves gradually one day at a time, always lurking on the horizon. Humans have plenty of time to get familiar with the inevitability of their situation. They have already moved beyond the initial stages of panic, hope, and despair, and have settled into resignation. They have time to plan, prepare, and decide how they are going to face the end. It's a different kind of survival and a different aspect of the human soul.

The first quarter of the book, which consists almost entirely of excerpts from Theodore's journal and includes his observations of events going on around him, gives a nice snapshot of what human society could be like in this kind of apocalyptic scenario. Theodore describes the feeling of despair when the last generation of humans reached their mid-twenties without becoming pregnant, the special treatment those last children received, the growing popularity of mass suicides, the preparations for consolidating the last humans into urban centers, how the remnants of the government will ensure that there will be enough resources to see the youngest generation into old age, and all the other signs of a society coming to terms with it's own death. In this sense, society exhibits all the characteristics of any individual come to the end of their life: crankiness, despondency, dementia, weariness, relief, rebellion, fragility, resignation, and acceptance--all wrapped into one package.

One of the key characteristics of all apocalyptic books I've read so far is a final note of hope. The good guys win. The child is born. The last survivors find one another. Life begins anew. Sometimes this is done very well (The Stand by Stephen King and the movie 28 Days Later). Sometimes it feels forced (The Road by Cormac McCarthy). And in the case of Children of Men, it's downright wrong. However it's handled, so far there are very few books where the author was able to bring him or herself to actually end the book with the idea that the human race comes to an end.* Especially in the case of The Road, it is as if the author builds up and up and up to the conclusion that humans fail and ultimately die out, but at the last minute just can't follow through and HAS to end on an up-note. This phenomenon in and of itself says something interesting about human nature--maybe it's a fundamental instinct of self-preservation that prevents authors from 'going all the way,' similar to how in dreams, you will always wake up before you see yourself die. It's as if denying hope is denying life itself.

And so I await with feverish anticipation the release of Children of Men on DVD.** Even if it only lives up to half the reviews I've heard, it's bound to be more entertaining than the book and promises a few more glimpses into the depths of human spirit.

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*Now that I think about it, the only book I've encountered where all humans do actually die is in The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. But even in that book, it's implied that the human SPIRIT lives on, even if not corporeally.

**Yes, I'm a notorious tightwad, and by the time I'm done debating whether or not it's worth coughing up $10 to see a movie, it's usually left the theaters.

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Final Recommendation: Skip the book; see the movie. If you insist on reading the book, stop after Theo goes to the Quietus and meets the Warden.

Good Read for When You're: Doing research for a book on apocalyptic visions.

Good Choice For: Someone you know is doing research on apocalyptic visions. Or is having apocalyptic visions.

If you're interested in having some apocalyptic visions of your own, I highly recommend:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Stand by Stephen King
28 Days Later

If you'd like to read some good books by P.D. James, try:

Death of an Expert Witness
Devices & Desires
Original Sin

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you're interested in juvenile post-apocalyptic books, but I just finished reading one for my 6th grader's book club called City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. Being in the publishing business, you've probably already heard of it. I thought that it was pretty interesting.

EmmaC said...

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by!

I have indeed read City of Ember and thought it was a really neat idea, well executed, and with all the details on post-apocalyptic social life that I love. (My favorite is how the people of Ember think that canned fruit is the most amazing stuff ever and also how much Lina covets the colored pencils!)

The the sequel, People of Sparks, and prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood, are not so great. The People of Sparks takes off where Ember leaves off, but the plot and characters are a lot less developed. The Prophet of Yonwood is even more disappointing. (both books were written after City of Ember.)

Let me know if you come across any other YA books you like--I love all kinds and am in the middle of Criss Cross right now.

Happy reading!

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind that I am sharing some of your comments about post apolalyptic books with a 6th-grade book group today. Thanks so much for responding. I didn't realize until just now that my comment to you actually went through.

I will also share with them your thoughts on the other books in the series, since I know they were interested in reading others.

The book that this group enjoyed the most so far this year was Al Capone Does My Shirts (or is it shorts?)

Emma C said...

By all means, feel free to share my comments with your book group! I'm honored! I think that kids that age are going to be more and more interested in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic type books. It's not necessarily because they or I or anyone else thinks that the apocalypse is actually around the corner or anything--it's more that thinking about these issues is relevant to things that are happening in the world today and helps kids to make sense of what they see. I feel like there is an increasing feeling among that generation of despair and hopelessness--"What's left for us?" "What will we do when we grow up?" "How will we live and make a living?" "What is meaningful anymore?" As ironic and counter-intuitive as it sounds, I really believe that these kinds of books give kids something to hold on to and hope for.

If they haven't found it already, your students might like "House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer. It takes place in a future dystopia and centers on feelings of being ostracized and an "outsider."

I'll definitely check out the Al Capone book. I remember seeing it on the shelves, but hadn't gotten around to giving it a good look.

By the way, feel free to contact me through e-mail as well: mythreeloves@gmail.com. I'd love to continue chatting about YA books!