October 1994By Fred Beckley
Fred Beckley is a Philadelphia lawyer.
The Children of Men. By P.D. James. Warner Books. 351 pages. $6.50.
In typical P.D. James fashion, The Children of Men (recently reissued in paperback) begins with a murder. The victim, Joseph Ricardo, dies in a pub brawl outside of Buenos Aires at exactly three minutes past midnight on the first of January. With her typical emphasis on detail, James relates that he was born, illegitimately, exactly 25 years, two months, and 11 days earlier.
Ricardo's murder provides connective tissue between The Children of Men and James's previous 11 novels, but does little more. In the wake of the crime, no call is placed to James's perennial poet detective, Adam Dalgliesh, to rouse him from his latest book-signing or his Scotland Yard duties. No motives are examined; no witnesses are questioned. In fact, no one even pays much attention to Ricardo's demise.
Ricardo's death isn't the point, for The Children of Men is not a mystery. And Dalgliesh, who debuted in James's first novel some 32 years ago, may well be dead. He makes no appearance. James -- or rather Theodore Faron, the narrator of The Children of Men -- relates the Ricardo incident simply because Ricardo was the last human being ever born. He dies in the year 2021, giving the human race approximately 70 years left on earth.
Humanity in The Children of Men ends not with a bang -- no nuclear holocaust, no massive environmental crisis, not even an invasion from outer space -- but a whimper. In 1995, now known as Omega, women simply stopped having babies. It wasn't volitional and no one knows why. In 2021, as the population ages towards oblivion, scientists attempt to discover why women stopped reproducing; after 25 years, however, little hope remains.
Much of The Children of Men consists of Faron's diary. He writes with the resigned detachment of Eugene Debs Hartke, the protagonist/author of Kurt Vonnegut's scrapbook diary of the future, Hocus Pocus, or of Camus's Meursault in The Stranger. Unlike Hartke, though, Faron does not temper his innate bitterness with a sense of humor. He is "fifty years old and [has] never known what it is to be in love." He didn't love his mother; he didn't love his wife; he didn't even love his 15-month-old daughter whom he accidentally killed.
That Faron holds so little appeal makes him an interesting choice for a character through which to narrate the end of humanity. Given the world that James creates, however, Faron seems like a good choice. He is hollow, bloodless, and indifferent; so, in 2021, is Faron's England.
England by 2021 remains one of the few civilized places on earth. As Faron observes: "Man is diminished if he lives without knowledge of his past; without hope of a future he becomes a beast. We see in every country in the world the loss of that hope, the end of science and invention, except for discoveries which may extend life or add to its comfort and pleasure." He goes on to describe "a universal anomie which leaves crops unsown and unharvested, animals neglected, starvation, civil war, the grabbing from the weak by the strong."
England escapes this fate due to the efforts of Faron's cousin Xan, the Warden of England, who enjoys absolute power and control. Xan and his advisory Council maintain this order with several innovations. Notably, all convicted criminals face permanent deportation to the Man Penal Colony, an inescapable island inhabited and governed by lawless gangs of roving thugs.
Because conviction means almost certain death, England's crime rate remains low. As she does periodically in The Children of Men, James employs a character to comment on today. Thus, a character defending Xan's methods says: "You must remember the 1990s, women afraid to walk the streets of their own cities, the rise in sexual violence and crime, old people self-imprisoned in their flats -- some burned to death behind their bars -- drunken hooligans ruining the peace of the country towns, children as dangerous as their elders, no property safe if it wasn't protected with expensive burglar alarms and grilles."
Xan and his Council also institute the Quietus. As the population ages without renewal, fewer and fewer people remain available to care for the elderly and the infirm. To solve the problem, government officials periodically gather failing individuals into a boat, and sink the boat. The act is allegedly voluntary, considered patriotic, and earns rewards for the deceased's family. Curiously, the Quietus meets little resistance.
That is the setting. This is the plot: Against the Man Penal Colony, the Quietus, and the other trappings of Xan's rule, a tiny rebel group makes a hopeless stand. The action in The Children of Men consists primarily of the rebels' flight from the forces of Xan. At first, Faron holds little sympathy for the rebels; when he begins to fall in love with one of them, however, he joins his fate to theirs.
The end of humanity finds Christianity in full retreat. The Church of England no longer has a common doctrine or common liturgy, and is hopelessly fragmented. Again, James seizes an opportunity for contemporary comment: "During the mid-1990s the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism." Presumably, that move contributed immeasurably to the Church of England's demise.
The rebels -- at least some of them -- are devout Christians and accordingly dub themselves the "Five Fishes." In a hostile, dying world, the hopelessly ragtag Fishes confront (although covertly) Xan and his Council.
Yet little is black and white in James's future. The Fishes' goals are unclear, and at least one member wishes simply to become the new Warden of England. The Five Fishes are not uniformly good; Xan is not uniformly bad.
Throughout The Children of Men, James consistently suggests more than she supplies. Her future teems with uncertainties. We don't know exactly why humanity is doomed; it simply is. Although her plot seems somewhat off-the-rack, James's story succeeds partly because of what she doesn't tell. The larger implications of The Children of Men remain unanswered for us to worry through.