Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Ten-pages-in book review: Children of Men

This was supposed to be a 10-pages-in book review of PD James' Children of Men. But the book was really good and I accidentally read the whole thing on the train going to and from my conference in Kingston last week before I could write the review. Oops, sorry about that.

I was surprised at what a great book this is. I had heard vaguely of the movie, but my life lately hasn't permitted me a lot of time for cinematic indulgence, and the book and the movie only really tripped onto my radar screen when I read about the Barren Bitches Book Brigade Tour hosted by Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. (Do they know how to write a catchy title or what?)

A bit of a caveat before I begin. (You know it's going to be a long ramble when I'm making preamble-ish caveats in the third paragraph.) I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, and I'm especially not a huge consumer of dystopian fiction. I'm far too optimistic, some might even say simplistic, to submit myself to the fatalistic outlook of dystopia. So I'm not overly familiar or comfortable with the conventions of the genre, outside of what I learned from Margaret Atwood, but as soon as I read the premise of this book, I knew I had to read it and talk about it with you.

Ah yes, the book. It's set in the year 2021, and is told in the alternating first and third person perspective of Theo Fallon, an Oxford professor and historian. The future in which he lives is not so different from the world of 2007, nor the world of 1992 (when the book was written) insomuch as there are no flying cars, no outposts of civilization on the moon, not even any mention of computers that I can recall. But it is the world of a doomed society, because it has been more than 25 years since a baby has been born. In the year 1995, all of humanity has been struck, completely inexplicably, infertile.

The book opens on a note of futulity and fatalism, many years past the panicked shock of the initial realization of infertility. Theo notes in his diary, "We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, then by our failure to discover the cause." Their spirits have been defeated not by the 'what', but by the unanswerable 'why?'

I found a lot of resonance with my own struggle with infertility in this book. The last generation of children, born in the year 1995, are known as Omega. As they become adults, society moves to erase the painful reminder that there will be no more children: "The children's playgrounds in our parks have been dismantled. [...] The toys have been burnt, except for the dolls, which have become for some half-demented women a substitute for children. The schools, long closed, have been boarded up or used as centres for adult education. The children's books have been systematically removed from our libraries. Only on tape and records do we hear the voices of children, only on film or television programs do we see the bright, moving images of the young. Some find them unbearable to watch but most feed on them as they would a drug."

I was haunted by this idea, by a world without children. I think I found the concept entirely more chilling than the idea of humanity's ultimate expiration. Theo describes in a few scenes how pets have become substitute children, as in one scene where a kitten is christened in an abandoned church. In another, he alludes to the acrimony of custodial agreements for pets: "As the registered part owner on the fecund-domestic-animal licence, I could, of course, have applied to the Animal Custody Court for joint custody or an access order, but I had no wish to submit myself to the humiliation." (I remember joking back in the dark days, in the tight way one jokes about something that might not be so funny after all, that if we didn't have a baby soon, one might soon find me at the mall pushing our lovely golden-shepherd mix Katie in a pram with a bonnet on her head.)

But the book isn't entirely about infertility; it's more of an exploration of what would happen to humanity deprived of a future and forced to live through a slow and considered extinction. Really, not the most cheerful book I ever read, but fascinating and compelling all the same.

Theo's cousin, Xan, is the Warden of England, a benevolent dictator who gives the people what he thinks they want: protection, comfort, and pleasure. When Theo, who had previously served on Xan's advisory council, is approached by a small group of revolutionaries who want to use Theo as a conduit to his powerful cousin, Theo is reluctant to get involved in anything that might disrupt his ordered life. When he does acquiesce in the end, it is for completely unaltruistic reasons.

The second half of the book becomes, rather unexpectedly after the thoughtful if plodding narrative of the first part of the book, a page-turning adventure that makes me glad I was too far committed to write a review before I reached the end of the story. It's a fascinating, insightful book that left me considering the issues it raises long after I turned the last page. I'd like to go see the movie now, although I've heard that it's only loosely based on the book, if only to have the excuse to re-immerse myself in the story again.

I'm not convinced I've adequately conveyed how much I enjoyed this book, how thought-provoking it was, and how I lingered over the last page, wondering what happened next. I'm typing this late at night, though, and rather than fuss over this and try to get the words just right, I'll just tell you that it's a really great book, one of the best I've read in a long time, and I'd love to talk about it with you.

I'll be revisiting this book next month as part of the Barren Bitches Book Brigade Tour, and you still have time to join in if you're interested. Read the book by the end of February and we can host our own conversation about the book on March 5.

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