Wednesday, August 17, 2022

brief review of P.D. James' "The Children of Men"

I like to read fiction and believe that it helps to keep me healthy mentally and spiritually (since I read so much non-fiction). Among types of fiction, I enjoy dystopian literature-- perhaps because it edges into non-fiction so easily. I had heard of P.D. James, but I had never thought about reading her, until reading a review of The Children of Men by John Miller in National Review.

James was a prolific mystery writer, so Children of Men was a departure for her. According to Miller, it was the only book when she did not earn an advance. But it generated more correspondence and controversy than any of her other books—and led to a 2006 movie version starring Clive Owen.

CoM is a really good book—if not a classic alongside Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Zamyatin's WeKoestler's Darkness at Noon, Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron", and works by Ayn Rand (e.g., Atlas Shrugged and Anthem).

The premise is that nobody can have children anymore. (The opening sentence is arresting—and at least for me, confusing for a minute: "Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl.") Worldwide infertility has occurred for reasons unknown to them or at least to us—and how this would change people and society. Imagine a world where playgrounds are completely obsolete. Imagine the changes in demographics and finances that would result from a dramatically-aging population. Imagine the hopelessness that would often emerge. 

CoM is 30 years old now, but surprisingly prescient—in addition to sobering—as a reflection on many aspects of our current moment. (The book takes place in early and then late in 2021, 25 years after the world's final birth in late 1995. This explains the attention given to it last year!) 

CoM has parallels with a wide array of anti-human public policies, social trends, and pseudo-religions: declining fertility, abortion, euthanasia, population control, eugenics, birth control, treating animals as children, environmentalism, efforts to muddy gender, and cultural and political pressures to diminish traditional family structure. While the book goes much further, this is what good art often does—extending the point to make a point. 

CoM is not explicitly Christian, but emanates from and echoes a Christian worldview. The religious references are interesting: The title comes from the sobering Psalm 90. The characters display a wide range of religious faiths—from the modernist "skeptic" to the pious. And finally, what requires a spoiler alert before I give you the last few (amazing) sentences which includes an explicit religious reference: "From some far childhood memory he recalled the rite...It was with a thumb wet with his own tears and stained with her blood that he made on the child's forehead the sign of the cross."


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