The Children of Men
by P. D. James
Knopf, 241 pages, $22
For some years now the novels of P. D. James—most of which feature Adam Dalgleish, London homicide detective and published poet—have been growing increasingly ambitious. In the early Dalgleish stories, as in most mysteries, the detective occupies center stage; readers follow the progress of the case, while contemplating Dalgleish's distinctive mental world. All of James' novels are notably literate and intelligent, several cuts above the standard in detective fiction, though none of the early ones transgresses the usual boundaries of the genre. But lately her books have expanded their horizons; this is especially true of Devices and Desires (1990), the most recent Dalgleish story. Here the detective's search for a murderer (or in this case murderers) still drives the plot, but several other characters are given substantial attention and are portrayed in real depth; Dalgleish becomes but one figure in a complex mosaic of contemporary English society. Indeed, Devices and Desires seems closer in spirit, though perhaps not in quality, to the great social novels of the nineteenth century (by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, for instance) than to the typical modern mystery novel. The increasing, if always subtle, attention to spiritual concerns in James' recent books—she is a professing Christian—only adds to the impression that she is after bigger game than is normally found in the fields of popular fiction.
In light of this trend in her writing, James' new novel, The Children of Men, may not be as much of a departure as a first glance suggests. There is no Dalgleish here, no search for a murderer, and in the everyday sense of the word no mystery—though the story is quite suspenseful and could plausibly be called a thriller. Moreover, the setting, as we will see, is quite unlike anything else James has done. Yet in another sense the book follows her recent course: the social and (to a lesser degree) spiritual explorations of Devices and Desires are simply more pronounced here. Of all James' novels, The Children of Men is probably the most pointed in its social criticism, certainly the deepest in its theological reflection.
Precisely because James has now raised the fictional stakes, The Children of Men is also, sad to say, too short: at little more than half the length of Devices and Desires, it cannot do full justice to the vital and fascinating issues it raises. Some themes seem underdeveloped, the motives of some characters unclear. Another hundred pages could have made this good book an outstanding one; but there is much to be thankful for in what's here.
The setting of The Children of Men will be the biggest surprise for P. D. James readers. Though the place is England, as usual, the time is the year 2021. And in that year England is a very different country, and the world a very different world, than we might reasonably expect. In James' imagined future, the last human child was born in October 1995; a mysterious global illness has made every man in the world sterile. New uses have been found for school buildings, playground equipment has been dismantled, the grounds themselves turned into gardens. Thus the book's title is heavily ironic: in this world there are many men, but no children.
But the title is more complex and significant than that. It would be unwarranted to call this novel an apology for Christianity, and yet the title encourages us to think along such lines. Its origin is the ninetieth Psalm—in this case, the version that appears in the burial rite of the old (1662) Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a rite that is not just quoted but that actually figures in the novel: “Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end. Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night.”
This might sound positively evangelistic; after all, in the context of the burial rite, it is a call to sinners to repent while they still may. But in the novel the character who pronounces these words believes neither in them nor in God. He is the narrator of much of the book and the protagonist of the whole, Theo Faron, an Oxford don (Merton College, Victorian history) and a skeptic—or rather, a man too tired and hopeless and beaten down by life to believe in anything. (In this he resembles almost everyone else in his world.) It is one of James' deftest touches to make her main character an unbeliever; indeed, only two characters in the book are Christians, and only one of them, a woman named Julian, a major figure. (Yes, we are invited to think of Julian of Norwich.) Thus Julian's faith and Theo's lack of it have equal claims upon our attention, and James leaves us free to assess the validity and persuasiveness of each. Nevertheless, the words of the Psalm have a force all their own, independent of the character who utters them, a fact of which Theo himself is well aware.
Why, one might ask, is the old Anglican prayer book in use in England in 2021, when it has been largely abandoned in the Church of England in 1993? This question leads us to one of James' most intriguing and subtly developed themes: the uselessness of liberal theology in a time of profound crisis. Christian theological liberalism has typically discarded orthodox eschatology in favor of a mild and essentially secular meliorism. But when people are faced with the apparent extinction of the human species, the belief in moral and material progress that undergirds such meliorism becomes, to say the least, untenable. James' story convincingly demonstrates that in such a world people will hold to a fully supernatural faith—in which hope is quite specifically a theological virtue—or they will abandon hope altogether. Extreme situations call forth extreme responses; comfortable middle-of-the-road liberalism has no claim on anyone's attention in such a world. What remains in that case is either to hear the call of God when “again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men,” or to seek whatever passing pleasures a broken and truncated world offers.
In James' imagined future, the truly hopeless turn to the government for the provision of those pleasures. England is ruled by a man named Xan Lyppiat (Theo Faron's cousin), who styles himself the Warden; his job, as he understands it, is chiefly to protect his doomed subjects from boredom, discomfort, and disorder. The people of England, it seems, are ready to give the Warden absolute power in return for such benefits. Though the machinery of democracy remains more or less in place, virtually no one cares to exercise his or her voting rights. Democracy too dies in the absence of hope for the future.
Does the Warden's apparently benevolent despotism give people even a modicum of genuine comfort? Not if they are anything like Theo Faron, who writes in his journal that “without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins.” But Faron is more honest and self-reflective than the majority, who prefer not to think hard thoughts or confront troubling facts.
James' portrayal of the many degrees of hope and hopelessness is fascinating, if insufficiently developed, and essential to the book's success. Above all else, however, The Children of Men is a powerful and passionate reminder of the incalculable value of human life. In our world, in which the lives of unborn children are regularly and often thoughtlessly discarded, we can scarcely imagine what might restore a proper understanding of (as the cliche quite accurately has it) “the miracle of birth.” But James has: in the future she presents to us, any birth would quite literally be a miracle, and the full (if ineffectual) attention of the world is devoted to producing it. Moreover, this universal infertility generates widespread neuroses: hysterical pregnancies abound; women buy expensive clothes for dolls that they wheel about in strollers; families and friends drink champagne to celebrate new litters of puppies or kittens. When new life becomes impossible, the world comes fully to realize its value.
Yet not quite the whole world. What we might call, following Dostoyevsky, the Dream of the Grand Inquisitor—that characteristically modern delusion that an elite group of social engineers can construct a utopia for the masses—is so compelling that even in such an overwhelming crisis the Warden and his small Council systematically discourage the “imperfect” from attempting to conceive. The mildly epileptic, the mentally below-average, even those with minor deformities of the limbs, all are exempted from the government's required sperm counts and its various incitements to procreation. As the story of the human race seems to approach its final chapter, the Warden of England stubbornly follows the perverse logic of eugenics and euthanasia: better the elimination of humanity altogether than the creation or perpetuation of beings who fail to meet the engineers' criteria of “quality of life.”
In this account of the key themes of The Children of Men, I have deliberately avoided saying much about the plot; the book is, again, something of a thriller, and it would be unfair to reveal its surprises. Suffice it to say that its array of dramatic events—conspiracies against the government, terrorism, suicides, murders, an enormous manhunt, various exhibitions of heroic resourcefulness, and so on—will keep the reader's interest. P. D. James has written an intriguing and often compelling novel, which unfortunately leaves the reader wanting more. But if we keep in mind Samuel Johnson's famous comment on Paradise Lost, which he thought one of the greatest of all poems—“No one ever wished it longer”—any complaint about the book's brevity could quite properly be seen as a compliment.
Alan Jacobs, a regular contributor to First Things, teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.