Dystopia is hot right now. Perhaps, seeing how situations that were once born of slippery slope fallacies are becoming recent history, more and more people are drawn to depictions of worlds gone terribly wrong. How bad could it get? How would humanity be saved?
Since we live in a culture where many people have separated sex from love, marriage, and children, it is interesting to see how the world might be different when that divide grows deep over generations. The Children of Men, written by P.D. James and adapted into a successful movie, considers what life could be like when generation itself is impossible.
One might have imagined that with the fear of pregnancy permanently removed, and the unerotic paraphernalia of pills, rubber, and ovulation arithmetic no longer necessary, sex would be freed for new and imaginative delights. The opposite has happened. Even those men and women who would normally have no wish to breed apparently need the assurance that they could have a child if they wished.
In the not-too-distant future (although it was more distant when the book was published in 1992), humans have lost all fertility. The last generation to be born is in their twenties. Nations have turned their attention to survival, passing the time, and preparing for the day when they will no longer have power, light, or the will to live. Theodore Faron, a history professor at Oxford, was once an advisor to his cousin, the all-but-dictator Warden of England. Now, he teaches an adult education class, writes in his journal, and merely lives. Into this bleak reality comes a woman named Julian, who, with her husband, priest, and two comrades, envisions a different future. There might not be hope for children, but there can be a better life for those now living. Theodore is drawn to her, to help her get what she wants, and he finds himself on a journey of body and spirit that he could never have anticipated.
If you’ve seen the excellent film, you may be surprised by this book, as I was. It amplifies the grittiness, but the stark emptiness of the film is missing due to words on the page. Julian plays a quite different role, and her comrades have a different mission. I actually prefer the movie’s portrayal of those aspects of the story.
I like dystopian fiction (which is no surprise if you’ve read many of my other reviews), but the stories I like usually feature young adults. Reading this book helped underscore why. For Theodore, there is no hope. Life is only about survival. Religion, relationships, and death are all reconsidered and restructured in this world. It’s not a pleasant future, not in the slightest. But without any children, it’s an even darker future. In young adults novels, the teen protagonist is inevitably the one spark needed to ignite the fire that changes everything, that finally makes the world of grown-ups realize where they’ve gone wrong. In this book, without any children, a spark would die off in an instant. It was tough to read and tough to imagine. Maybe that is why I don’t usually read fiction written for adults.
My takeaway from The Children of Men is that (cheesy Whitney Houston reference aside) the children really are our future. From the infant in the manger at Bethlehem to the baby that arrives soon after a grandparent’s death, we need new life to give us motivation toward survival. Without new life, we lose hope. Without hope, we lose our will to live and to strive for something greater than ourselves: the future.