catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Imagine a world

A world without children, what a concept. A world without children, what a concept! How one says that phrase makes all difference. There are many people, unmarried and married, who carefully structure their lives to ensure that this is true, true of their little worlds at least. The term “DINK” was coined to describe couples who have “Dual Income, No Kids.” The birth rates in European democracies in non-immigrant communities saw steady declines through much of the latter half of the 20th Century.

On the other side of the equation, several churches, from the globe spanning Catholic Church to tiny independent Protestant churches in North America, have doctrinal positions that claim it is wrong to place any, shall we say, barriers in the way of the possibility of procreation in any unitive act. But what about a world in which there were, truly, no children anywhere, one in which women stopped being able to conceive the world over, what would such a world be like? This is the question at the center of P. D. James’ novel The Children of Men.

The highly improbable premise of The Children of Men, one for which James does little to provide a plausible explanation, places this book in the territory of science fiction. The fact that the catastrophe of childlessness results in dictatorship and societal fracture, places it in the dystopian wing of that genre. That the book fits in these genres at all, is a departure for James’ who is principally known for her mystery books set in contemporary Britain, many of which have been adapted for television.

I should note, that this book is a rather old, having first been published in 1993. It deserves a fresh review, however, as like its mystery book cousins it is being dramatized. Its movie adaptation, starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine, will hit the cinemas on Christmas day. From its trailer and early reviews, which are good, the movie seems to condense and amend the story in various ways. As with any book to film adaptation, changes may or may not be warranted, necessary, or successful. And it is always possible that the screenwriters and director, indeed, may create some thing equally important yet different. Yet, regardless of the success of the adaptation or not, hopefully this review will encourage you to also read the novel, which has important things to say.

Good science fiction is not really about the future. It is about the present. It is centered on creating supposals of change, technological or social, to illuminate themes and issues that exist at the time when the author is writing.

As early as 1991 a European Community Report showed a slump in the number of children born in Europe—8.2 million in 1990, with particular drops in the Roman Catholic countries. We thought that we knew the reasons, that the fall was deliberate, a result of more liberal attitudes to birth control and abortion, the postponement of pregnancy by professional women pursing their careers, the wish of families for a higher standard of living. And the fall in population was complicated by the spread of AIDS, particularly in Africa. (James 8)

As such, some of the supposals that P. D. James sets up and follows through are centered very much in the time in which she was writing, the early 1990s, just after the cold war had ended and long before the cultural conflicts of our present day had fully exploded. What are more timeless are her reflections on the value of life and the consequences of taking it for granted, of valuing it too cheaply. In the broadest scope of the phrase, James’ novel is remarkably pro life.

If the final words of the preceding paragraph have landed in your mind like a hand grenade, be assured that it is not my intention to pull its pin. I do not even know P. D. James’ specific views on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. However, she is a Christian whose deep respect for and celebration of human life, in all its stages, is clearly evident in The Children of Men. Moreover, Christianity figures prominently in the book, in its themes, in its structure, and in the lives of two of its main protagonists.

Structurally, the book is divided into two sections entitled, in order, Omega and Alpha. Omega is concerned principally with exposition of how the situation in the story came to be and of the nature of the central character, Theodore Faron. It consists of chapters that alternate between Theo’s journal entries, which largely reflect on the past, and narrative chapters that move the plot along. Indeed, Omega, “the end,” is the name that that society has given to the last year in which any woman gave birth. Also, the “Omegas” in the novel are the children born in that year and who are given a privileged status.

Theo’s descriptions of what happens to a society without children and without hope for any type of a human future are intriguing:

But those who lived gave way to the almost universal negativism, what the French named ennui universel. It came upon us like an insidious disease; indeed, it was a disease, with its soon-familiar symptoms of lassitude, depression, ill-defined malaise, a readiness to give way to minor infections, a perpetual disabling headache….The weapons I fight it with are also my consolations: books, music, food, wine, nature. (9)

We soon learn that Theo’s own struggle against ennui, is actually one which precedes the Omega catastrophe. It is one which is the result of several factors, including: a deeply engrained selfishness of sorts, formed from his youth; the inability, whether chosen or not, to love those close to him; and a personal tragedy that fixes him into a scholarly life, filled only with the consolations of “books, music, food, wine, nature,” even before Omega occurs.

The dystopian society surrounding Theo is fascinating, horrific, and sad, complete with wild cults and societies, government pornography shops, women who have false pregnancies, the treatment of dolls and kittens as babies, celebratory parties for the viewing of birthing by one’s pets, and the baptism of pets. Britain is ruled by what posits itself as a benevolent dictatorship led by a council, the head of which is Theo’s cousin, Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. The council’s central goal, in addition to finding a cure for Omega, is to provide as comfortable of a life as possible for the citizens of England, who are at the same time forced to give up some of their civil liberties. Women and men must submit to regular gynecological exams and semen testing. Immigrants, called Sojourners, are tightly controlled, and only allowed into England to do menial work. Criminals are sent to a lawless penal colony on the Isle of Mann and the elderly are encouraged to consider a mass suicide ritual called a Quietus, which, officially, is entirely voluntary.

James spends a great deal of time in describing the inner and outer landscapes of Theodore Faron. This provides a sturdy framework on which the plot can be built. The plot really begins to move, however, as it often does in fiction and life, with the arrival of a girl. Theo first meets Julian as a student in one of his classes and immediately notices her forthrightness and intelligence. The reader is introduced to her as she invites Theo to meet with a subversive group which is seeking change on several human rights issues. They seek him out because he is the Warden’s cousin and a former member of the council, and they believe that he can help them influence its decisions.

During the course of his courting by the group, Theo begins to see some of the darker aspects of the society Xan Lyppiatt has created, particularly when he attends a Quietus. The Omega section of the book ends with Theo leaving the country for an extended vacation in Europe, in effect to run from what he sees as the hopeless cause he is being asked to join and from the deep attachment he is developing for Julian.

I shall put behind me the memory of what I saw at Southwold, Xan and the Council, and this grey city, where even the stones bear witness to the transience of youth, of learning, of love. I shall tear this page from my journal. Writing these words was an indulgence; to let them stand would be folly. And I shall try to forget this morning’s promise. It was made in a moment of madness. I don’t suppose she will take it up. If she does, she will find this house empty. (134)

The second section of the book, Alpha, is almost half as long as the first, is almost entirely plot driven, and contains only one journal entry. Theo returns from the continent and, of course, joins the little band of idealistic rebels. He soon finds that their mission, however, has radically changed, because of a new reality at which the title of the section hints. The section narrates the flight of the group from the authorities across the English countryside, a chase made more desperate as the authorities learn of their secret. There is a fair amount of character development in this section too, however. Some characteristics of every member in the group are illustrated, including Julian’s husband Rolf, a former priest named Luke, a young man named Gascoigne, and a former midwife named Miriam. The most attention is paid to Julian, however, as that is to whom Theo pays the most attention. Indeed, Julian is his only motivation for helping the little band all.

When the director M. Night Shyamalan made the movie Unbreakable, he said that what interested him about the super hero story was not so much the acts of the hero but the process by which the hero realizes his or her gifting and responsibility. Unbreakable was a quiet, masterful movie about beginnings, about the awakening of motivation in Bruce Willis’ character, David Dunn; it was, in essence, a movie about calling. Similarly, the second half of The Children of Men is also a story about beginnings. It is about the stirrings that occur in Theodore Faron to make him a man of character and action, a man he could never have pictured himself becoming at the beginning of the book.

The Children of Men may not be an easy read for some and may take some work. Passages such as the exposition of Theo’s character through the description of his childhood may seem dry. Yet they are important for developments later on. Moreover, it is often in such quiet moments in which James' skill as an observer of the human condition is most evident. Particularly skillful are the descriptions of the death of a marriage and the sad oddity of communication after it has died. Particularly skillful are the descriptions of the sweet oddities which awaken love, the nuances of character and body.

Appropriately enough for this issue of catapult, the novel lingers long on what it means to be human, to be creatures who are spirits ensconced bodies, in bodies that are broken and frail and deformed. And, just as with the Incarnation, which is the inspiration for this issue, The Children of Men ends with a beginning, with a beginning in a shed.

The baby had needed no encouragement to suck. He was a lively child, opening on Theo his bright unfocused eyes, waving his starfish hands, butting his head against his mother’s breast, the small open mouth voraciously seeking the nipple. It was extraordinary that anything so new could be so vigorous. He sucked and slept. Theo lay down beside Julian and placed an arm over them both. He felt the damp softness of her hair against his cheek. They lay on the soiled and crumpled sheet in the stench of blood, sweat and faeces but he had never known such peace, never realized that joy could be so sweetly compounded with pain. They lay half-dozing in a wordless calm and it seemed to Theo that there rose from the child’s warm flesh, transitory but stronger even than the smell of blood, the strange agreeable aroma of the new-born, dry and pungent like hay. (230)

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