P D James. 1992
The human race faces extinction in this remarkable dystopian sci-fi, which stylishly combines a scathing satire of Britain disguised as an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, with a denunciation of the patriarchal society, as well as a being warning against a slide into totalitarianism.
Set in the then near-future of 2021, the human race has lost its ability to reproduce, and Theo, a very ordinary man, becomes unwittingly involved in a political conspiracy involving the first child born in a generation.
However in James’ hands, the hero is far from the suave figure in the mould of Cary Grant, instead James provides us with the appalling Theo to skewer the myth of the English gentleman hero.
And as James addresses issues of men denying women rights over their own bodies and using maternity as a political tool, the plot comes to a head as various men vie to control the prospects of an unborn baby and its mother for political power.
Theo is without doubt a terrible person, the epitome of a privileged self-obsessing and emotionally numb Englishman who’s obsessed with the past and bedevils public discourse. He could be the hero from a novel of British sci-fi writer, John Wyndham.
I’m a huge fan of Wyndham’s work such as his 1953 novel, The Kraken Wakes, but even I’d struggle to defend his hero’s prejudices. James holds no punches as she mockingly skewers Wyndham’s unremitting sexism by closely aping his literary style.
There’s a lot of Wyndham’s seminal 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids, in The Children of Men, as a small band of relative strangers race across the English countryside in search of sanctuary while fretting over the continuation of the human race.
James skilfully allows us to understand the sadness of the women in the life of the Theo, while denying him that same self-knowledge.
Theo is an utterly selfish and Incapable of empathy or offering sympathy to women, he dismisses female outpourings of grief as evidence of insanity.
When Theo isn’t excusing his own culpability or unfairly blaming his wife for a tragic accident, he mostly remembers the incident for his own humiliation, and blames his wife for their subsequent divorce. It’s one many example of how women suffer at the hands of men in this novel.
Arrogant and vain and unable to recognise his own failings, and at every step Theo’s assumptions regarding women are wrong, and he can’t see what he regards as subservience to love is really abusive control.
James has a particularly acid and deadpan sense of humour which is enormously appealing, and she merrily mocks the male fondness for discussing travel routes and motorways.
And it’s not just Wyndham that James has a deserved pop at, the title of the book is deeply ironic and, in being lifted from a Bible verse, James uses it to underline how long male authors have codified misogyny in western culture.
Elsewhere James uses a female character to happily stick the boot into the reputation of American author Henry James.
And theres a wonderful confidence to James’ work as she begins her novel at ‘three minutes past midnight’ and so cheekily invokes the opening of George Orwell’s genre-defining dystopia, 1984.
And as in 1984 the male protagonist falls in with a beautiful young woman, and through his arrogance he becomes involved with a revolutionary group challenging a failed democracy, ruled by a dictator, The Warden, rules the UK, the title a knowing throwback to the UK’s local martinets of the Second World War.
With extraordinary cynicism James sketches a vision of society the equal of anything in J.G. Ballard, where the male-run state assumes women, not men, are at fault for the world-wide infertility, and subjects women to regular invasive testing.
This is an England where the body-obsessed middled-aged play obscene amounts of golf, sex is state-sponsored to try and kick start the human race, and there are state sponsored brothels euphemistically called ‘Porn centres’.
James could easily have been written from the point of view of a female character, but the absence of women’s agency is James’ point. Women are at all times ignored, belittled or reduced to bargaining chips.
The father of the unborn child automatically assumes he can leverage his fertile status into political power, a literal ‘father of the nation’, and James scathing using his unthinking arrogance as a proxy for all men.
In light of how horribly accurate James’ view of the future is,, re-reading The Children of Men in 2022, the year after its setting, is a fascinating if dispiriting experience.
To inform us she’s absolutely writing about the here and now and not the future of 2021, James references news events of 1990-1, the years immeditately prior to the book’s publication.
And it’s scathing look at England as it was. The masked pigtailed anarchists, the ‘Painted Faces’ roaming the countryside, seem inspired a parody of illegal rave parties and the eco-rave activists of the period which fuelled a media panic.
And a throwaway joke concerning celebrity footballer Paul Gascoigne which as intended will now be mostly lost on those readers born after the publication of this novel.
James is is extraordinary in its scathing critique of the UK and terrifying in its prophetic accuracy.
She paints a portrait of England in decay, a totalitarian state existing only to organise its own decline. A more bleak critique of Britain’s fading position in the world I can’t imagine, other than the real future we’re experiencing.
The authorities in The Children of Men have an utterly callous attitude to the elderly, providing a lack of sensitivity to their needs, the opposite of care, and an absence of dignity in death.
Sadly James’ prediction Alzheimer’s being a controlled condition is far off the mark. But the racist treatment of imported unskilled workers from less affluent countries is sadly bang on the money.
Having selected her targets, James ruthlessly cuts them down with a precise sniper fire of prose. Under her barrage we can feel her seething anger.
James’ pen spits bitter and outraged satire as terrorists demand free elections, dignity for the elderly, rights for foreign workers, humane treatment for convicts, and to give women control over their reproductive systems and sexual behaviour.
Yet there’s also room for a beautiful, brief and almost throwaway passage which recalls the final scenes of Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Theo reflects on his life, rapidly experiencing his life at different ages and imagining himself as old man.
And though The Children of Men is unquestionably science fiction there’s an absence of the technological trappings of the genre, and the technology is no more advanced than the era the book was written in. There’s no hint of the internet or smart phones, and so no social media, texting or google maps.
There are hints a germ or disease is responsible for the infertility, which again would be appallingly apposite in this era of Covid. But as James offers no definitive explanation, the existential threat to human life also feels biblical in nature, a judgement of the gods.
Secret meetings and at least one crucial event takes place in a church, underlines how human reproduction has long been politicised by male-controlled religious authorities.
James finds a great sadness in her female characters who use pets and dolls as surrogate children, and this amounts to a demand for the nurturing of children to be made central to society.
With testing for physical ‘defects’, genetic or otherwise, this novel doesn’t ask the great question of sci-fi of, ‘what does it mean to be human?’ Instead James goes further and asks, ‘what does it mean to be a woman?’
Her answer may well be a bleak and condemnatory, but she addresses it with compelling force, rigour and style.
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