Dark Futures Book 16: The Children of Men

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we visit a world with literally no hope of any future whatsoever.

P D James’ The Children of Men opens with the news breaking of the death of world’s youngest person, at the age of 25. The news is greeted by our protagonist, Theo, with much the same emotion as he views everything else; emotionally distant resignation, the perfect sentiment for a world slowly closing up curtains and making sure the lights are all off before finally drifting off into the long night.The Children of Men pulls in a lot of inspiration of the books gone before it, most notably the fertility crisis of The Handmaid’s Tale, but eschews any sense of parable or point scoring, making it a slightly odd journey to follow.

Theo, a lonely divorced man in a world where male infertility has meant no children have been born for quarter of a century, is living his life like most of the rest of the UK – marking time until the end and focused on the quiet life. The country is run by an unelected Junta led by his cousin, and the secret service and lack of any sort of civil rights are tolerated because they streets are safer, and peoples needs are catered for, and really, who cares anymore? The first half of the book is a window into Theos quiet life, until it is disrupted by him being somewhat unwillingly dragged into a conspiritorial revolutionary group, and then the second half deals with their Big Secret, and headlong flight across the countryside.

James throws a lot of ideas around, and a lot of characters, but Theos laid-back passivity can be a little annoying at times, and in some places I think the book could with a little more focus than it had. It suits the world, that strange lack of energy, and it can be very evocative, but at times you want things to actually happen, and the pacing is a little off. On the plus side, it’s a wonderfully British apocalypse, even the dictatorial Council has the air of Parish Meetings to it, and it makes the whole of the proceedings faintly endearing.

It’s hard not to mention the excellent film of the book however, which takes radical liberties with the story, not least substantially streamlining its’ cast of characters and making a world slightly more nihilistic than simply resigned and giving Theo’s journey some sort of goal, albeit retaining the idea of a very ambigious (if different) ending.

So in conclusion, The Children of Men is a book more of style than substance – or rather a book built more on its atmosphere than it’s plot. It becomes a vision of a future that feels shorn of message or warning, which is a double-edged choice; no risk of heavy-handedness, but unfortunately light on impact.

Next time:  A different take on the future, with Max Barry’s corporate satire Jennifer Government.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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