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Brave New Reading List: The Children of Men

by Brita Thielen

This week’s dystopian fiction pick is P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men (Warner Books; 1992). James, best known as a crime fiction writer with a literary edge, passed away quite recently – in November 2014. Her central concern in this novel is similar to the one posed in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: how would society change if the human race became unable to procreate?

The protagonist of The Children of Men is a middle-aged man named Theodore Faron, a divorced Oxford don of history who also happens to be cousins to the story’s dictator-figure, Xan Lyppiatt. The novel alternates between Theo’s diary entries, begun on his 50th birthday, and third-person narration that follows Theo from the day he meets a young woman named Julian. It has been more than 20 years since a child has been born due to worldwide male infertility (cause unknown). After an initial period of unrest following the realization that the human race would in a few decades become extinct, Xan stepped in as the “Warden of England” promising peace and comfort in the time remaining.

For the most part, this promise seems to be upheld, so long as you are not an immigrant or law-breaker. While most people do seem to have a decent quality of life and assurance of safety, many have sunk into hopelessness and apathy. The last generation of children to be born, nick-named Omegas, are the most apathetic of all and seem especially prone to violence. Some have even taken to the countryside to waylay and murder travelers unlucky enough to fall into their hands.

Julian, however, does not believe all is well and is part of a small rebel group that opposes the “evils” sanctioned by Xan’s government, including mass suicide ceremonies for the elderly and inhumane treatment of prisoners sent to the Isle of Man Penal Colony. Theo is torn between a desire to help Julian and a general wish not to have others depend on him. As he says early in the novel, “I don’t want anyone to look to me, not for protection, not for happiness, not for love, not for anything.” It takes Julian’s revelation of a game-changing secret to coerce his assistance . . . and I’ll just leave it at that.

Like in The Handmaid’s Tale, religion, especially Christianity, plays a significant role in The Children of Men. Here, however, religion is discussed in terms of belief/unbelief rather than taking a political role. Another connection-with-a-twist is that while sex is highly controlled in Handmaid, particularly for women, the government in Children actively encourages sex, even to the extent of running its own porn shops, just in case someone manages to conceive. People have apparently lost interest in sexual activity now that there is no possibility of children (an aspect of the plot I viewed with some incredulity, I’ll admit).

After finishing the book, I recalled that there had been a movie version made in 2006, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine. I decided to watch the trailer and immediately noticed several differences. Most notable, to me, was that although the book stresses several times that the problem of procreation is due to male infertility, the movie trailer announces that “women stopped being able to have babies” and later a character asks the question “The ultimate mystery: why are women infertile?” Since depictions of women in literature and popular culture are one of my scholarly interests, I’m curious what part of the film’s plot (if any) required this change and why. In addition, the film seems to depict a much more violent and chaotic society than the one depicted in the novel, and there is zero mention of Xan (or any dictator figure, from what I could determine). Julian’s character also seems to be doubling as Theo’s ex-wife. If you’re interested in further comparison, I’m linking the trailer here – but be warned, it contains spoilers that I left out of my earlier description of the novel!

Recommended if: You enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale or like dystopians with a meditative/self-reflective edge. Also, if you want some psychological insight into a dystopian dictator.