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February 8, 2009

The Children of Men

P.D. James – ISBN – 9780307275431

Having never read James, I can only guess that her ability to engender suspense is based upon a lifetime of writing the gripping whodunits for which she is legendary. She is as gifted as Agatha Christie; maybe more so.

The plot, unlike her usual venue, is science fiction. It posits a time 30 years hence when the males of the human race have been sterile for reasons no medical scientist can determine. She engages in lively discourses full of tortuous asides which build to a powerful and a more-or-less unexpected climax. Observing the division into two “books,” the first Omega and the last Alpha, one is assured that it is possible to conclude the culmination with exactitude . . . one would be wrong. Close, perhaps, but no cigar.

English society has become more or less complacent; acceptant of the forthcoming extinction of Homo sapiens. As the population dwindles entire towns are abandoned; left to deteriorate. People get along, but with no particular relish. Society has created new rituals, including celebration of the birth and christening of cats. Minor crimes are punished by banishment to the isolated Isle of Man, where they are provided with shelter, superficial care, seeds and implements to grow food, but little else. They cannot return. The fiercest run the place as the weak are expunged. There is a new ceremony, Quietus, in which “volunteers” amongst the elderly are quietly euthanized, and their heirs paid a premium for their sacrifice. They are loaded upon barges, shackled to benches and launched into the ocean where the barges are simply sunk (saves bullets or IV drugs, I guess.)

The system is overtly if quietly cruel, but no one pays attention beyond their own particular needs, trusting the government to supervise it all. The new government isn’t “royal;” rather, a committee headed by a Warden who is nothing if not a dictator, who answers to no one beyond the committee. Said committee rarely challenges decisions, and no one in the diminishing population of England has a say about what transpires. The government is committed to maintaining civility, safety, and the orderly demise of society. Medical research is directed by the committee, and is expressly devoted to the prolongation of life, improvement of mental faculties, better health, etc . . . but for what? The committee determines when villages are to be abandoned, how services and food are to be provided, etc. It provides the money to fund Quietus, and most everything else. No one challenges or reports upon it.

Servants are imported from the still extant 3rd world, confined to life in compounds except when working, paid little, provided with no security, and sent back home when they are no longer useful. They have no right to remain, which would but add further to the burden of England.

The Warden, needless to say, is the antagonist, and his childhood friend, Theo, is the prime protagonist. He’s a detached, divorced Oxford professor of history who has no life outside of academia, no interest beyond the past; and a person of no conviction, including religion. Love is something strange to society at large, and most especially to Theo. Over the course of the tale he is humanized from a drone to one who finally experiences love and feels a responsibility for someone else.

There arises a band of revolutionaries which includes a budding dictator, a priest, and a pair of women who are opposed to the cruelty of the Isle of Man, the treatment of the imported serfs, the Quietude, and the general nature of the dictatorship. They attempt to alter it. They approach Theo to represent their ideas to the Warden. No one can gain audience, but they expect that Theo’s friendship will gain him a hearing. Theo agrees, and thus becomes a party to the insurrection. The plot, beyond the original framework, details the experiences of this band of malcontents.

It is suspenseful, fulsome, thought provoking and infinitely readable tract. In fact, I may even try a murder mystery or two . . . a genre which I never read. Her delivery is more akin to literature than it is to mayhem. She is good!

Posted by respeto at February 8, 2009 11:26 AM