The Children of Men

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The Children of Men  

Cover of the 1994 paperback edition
Author P. D. James
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Dystopian novel
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date 1992
Media type print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 241 pp
ISBN ISBN 0679418733 (Hardcover)
ISBN 0446679208 (Paperback)

The Children of Men is a dystopian novel by P. D. James that was published in 1992. Set in England in 2021, it centres on the results of mass infertility. James describes a United Kingdom that is steadily depopulating and focuses on a small group of resisters who do not share the disillusionment of the masses.

The title of the book is derived from Psalm 90(89):3 of the KJV: "Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men." [1] The Psalm is quoted in Chapter 28 of the novel, and is its only reference to the phrase.


[edit] Plot summary

The narrative voice for the novel alternates between the third person and the first person, the latter in the form of the diary kept by Dr Theodore Faron, normally called "Theo", who is an Oxford don. His wife Helena left him two years before the story begins. Their marriage deteriorated after Theo accidentally ran over their daughter, Natalie.

The novel opens with the first entry in Theo's diary. It is the year 2021, but the novel's events have their origin in 1995, which is referred to as "Year Omega". Theo writes that the last human being to be born on Earth, a young Argentine man, has been killed in a pub brawl in Buenos Aires.

Theo takes us back to 1994, when, for reasons unknown, the sperm counts of all human males plummeted to zero. The last people to be born — i.e., all children born in 1995 — have come to be called "Omegas": "A race apart," they enjoy various prerogatives and, now in their mid-twenties, generally seem to be very proud to be the youngest humans alive.

Having access to statistical data, the first people to notice that something is wrong are gynecologists, obstetricians, and midwives, whereas couples who want to have a child just think they're unlucky. It takes several months for the world to grasp the situation and its implications.

In 2006, a man called Xan Lyppiatt, Theo's rich and charismatic cousin, appoints himself Warden of England. It is the year in which the last general election is held. Out of necessity — people have lost all interest in politics — Lyppiatt abolishes democracy. He is called a despot and a tyrant by his opponents, but officially the new society is referred to as egalitarian.

Theo is approached by a woman called Julian, a member of a group of dissidents who call themselves the Five Fishes. He meets with them at an isolated church. Rolf, their nominal leader and Julian's husband, is hostile, but the others — Miriam (a midwife), Gascoigne (a man from a military family who does not want the Grenadiers to continue to be used as Xan's personal army), Luke (a former priest), and Julian — are more personable. The group wants Theo to approach Xan on their behalf, and ask for various reforms, including a return to a more democratic system. During their discussions, and as Theo prepares to meet with Xan, we learn how the UK is run in 2021:

  • The country is governed by decree of the Council of England, which represents the executive branch (the government) and consists of five people only. Parliament still exists, but it has been reduced to an advisory role. Generally, the three aims of the Council of England are (1) protection and security, (2) comfort, and (3) pleasure -- corresponding to the Warden's promises of (1) freedom from fear, (2) freedom from want, and (3) freedom from boredom.
  • The Grenadiers — formerly an elite regiment in the British armed forces — are the Warden's private army. They take an oath to the Warden personally. The State Secret Police (SSP) ensures that the Council's decrees are executed.
  • Drastic measures have been taken to pacify the citizens and maintain the illusion that a comfortable life will be possible in the years to come. The law courts still exist, but as the citizens are very reluctant to do jury service, juries have been abolished altogether. Under the "new arrangements", defendants are tried by a judge and two magistrates. All convicted criminals, violent and non-violent, are dumped at a penal colony on the Isle of Man. There is no remission, escape is impossible, visitors are forbidden, and prisoners are not even allowed to write or receive letters.
  • By decree of the Council of England, every citizen is required to learn skills, such as husbandry, which they might need to help them survive if they happen to be among the last human beings in Britain.
  • Foreign workers are lured into the country and then exploited. Young people, preferably Omegas, from poorer countries come to England to work there. These "foreign Omegas" or, generally, "Sojourners" are imported to do the dirty work (collecting rubbish, mending the roads, etc.). At 60, which is the age limit, they are sent back ("forcibly repatriated"). British Omegas, however, are not allowed to emigrate so as to prevent further loss of labour or a brain drain.
  • Older/infirm citizens have become a burden; nursing homes are for the privileged few. The rest face more gruesome options: They can either (a) die helpless and unassisted in their homes; (b) commit suicide or (c) take part in a so-called Quietus (Council-sanctioned mass drownings). Before he agrees to see the Council as Julian and the others ask, Theo views a Quietus and is injured by one of the security people supervising it while trying to save a woman he knew.
  • One might think that in 2021 sex has become some sort of national pastime, given that there is little else to do and no danger of unwanted pregnancies. However, people have lost interest in sex, and the state has had to open "pornography centres". Twice a year, all healthy women under 45 must submit to a gynecological examination, and most men must have their sperm tested, to keep hope alive that human life on this planet might not be heading for extinction.

Theo's meeting with Xan, which is actually a meeting with the full Council of England, does not go well. Some of the other members resent his input because he resigned as Xan's advisor rather than share the responsibility of governing the UK. Furthermore, Xan guesses that Theo's suggestions came from others and makes clear to Theo that he will take action against dissidents.

The Five Fishes nevertheless publish and distribute a leaflet detailing their demands. As a result, Theo is visited by the SSP and, shortly afterwards, he sees Julian in the market. He tells her of the SSP visit, then tells her that if ever she needs him, she only has to send for him and he will come. Later that night, however, Theo decides to leave England for the summer and visit the continent before nature completely overruns it.

Soon after his return, Miriam appears at his door. She tells him that Gascoigne was arrested as he was trying to rig a Quietus landing stage to explode. The other Fishes are about to go on the run, and Julian wants him. As they drive to meet the remainder of the group, Miriam reveals why Julian did not come herself -- she is pregnant. At first, Theo is convinced that Julian is deceiving herself as had been the case with many other women since Omega. When the two finally meet, however, Julian invites Theo to listen to her baby's heartbeat and Theo believes.

During the group's subsequent flight, Luke is killed while trying to protect Julian during a confrontation with a wild gang of Omegas. Julian confesses that the father of her child is not Rolf, but the deceased Luke. Rolf, who clearly thinks he should rule the UK in Xan's place, is angered at the discovery that his trump card — his effective sperm — does not exist; he abandons the group to notify the Warden.

The group heads to a shack Theo knows of. Here, Miriam delivers Julian's baby — a boy, not a girl as Julian had thought. Miriam goes to find more supplies and after she is gone too long Theo goes to investigate. He finds Miriam dead, garrotted in a nearby house. Theo returns to Julian, but soon after Julian hears a noise outside — it is Xan.

Theo and Xan confront each other and both men fire one shot. The sudden wailing of the baby startles Xan, causing him to miss as Rolf had thought the baby would not be born for another month. Theo does not miss. He removes the Coronation Ring, which Xan has taken to wearing as a symbol of authority, from Xan's finger and seems poised to become the new leader of the Council and of the UK — at least temporarily. As the action ends, the other members of the Council are introduced to the baby, and Theo baptises him.

[edit] Adaptations

A loose film adaptation, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Julianne Moore and Clive Owen, was released in 2006. Substantial changes were made in terms of plot, political message and characters in the updated film.

David Eick (producer of Battlestar Galactica) is currently working on a TV show adaptation of the novel for the Sci Fi Channel.[2]

[edit] References

[edit] See also

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