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The Children Of Men by P.D. James

01/09/2009. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Children Of Men in the USA - or Buy The Children Of Men in the UK

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pub: Faber and Faber. 288 page paperback. Price: can be bought for pence on the Net (UK). ISBN: 978-0-73662-463-3.

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It is the year 2021 and no babies have been born for 25 years. Theodore Faron, Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of Merton College and historian of the Victorian age, divorced and solitary writes his diary. The book alternates first person diary extracts with third person narration from his point of view by the author. This works well.

Theo is a cousin of Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England, and lives a quiet life as the country winds down. The last generation of children born, called the Omegas, are beautiful and cruel. Older people, realizing that the human race is coming to an end, due to mass infertility, are despairing and a bit mad. Some push prams around with dolls in which they treat as real babies. Others solemnly baptise cats.

The novel is divided into two 'books' titled 'Omega' and 'Alpha'. In the first book, Theo is a very detached, cool sort of chap, consoling himself with books, music, food, wine and nature. There being no children and no future generations to care for, the Oxford Colleges are free to use up their well-stocked wine cellars. He records recent history and current events in his diary with occasional acerbic comments. 'If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils,' he says of the Omegas. They like to gang up and kill lone strangers by battering them to death, dancing and singing all the while. Thus, in 1992, P.D. James predicted happy-slapping.

While Theo lives a sedentary life, his cousin, the dictator, efficiently organises the running down of England. Labour will get scarcer as the population ages so some villages and towns are being abandoned, power and water will be supplied to the bigger ones. Old people who want to end it all quietly, there being no one to look after them, can take the Quietus in groups, a sort of mass suicide.

Law and order are strictly maintained and anyone guilty of the slightest offence, even minor theft, is shipped off to the Isle of Man. There are no guards or supervision there, the criminals are simply left to sort themselves out as best they can. Theo is vaguely aware of all this, indeed he once served as an advisor to Xan and his Council of England for three years.

Naturally, a girl changes everything. Julian attended one of his evening classes and re-appears to invite him to a meeting. She is part of a group called the Five Fishes, a rather hopelessly romantic clique of would-be revolutionaries. They tell him about conditions on the Isle of Man and invite him to go and watch a Quietus for himself. He does so simply because he is attracted to Julian and his life changes, slowly, from passive to dynamic. The second part of the book is the dynamic bit and to say anything about it would be to give away the plot, so I won't.

I preferred the first part. A world free of children with lots of wine to drink strikes me as paradise but this is probably a minority view. I also preferred Theo when he was cool, acerbic and detached. His reminiscences about childhood with his cousin were interesting, too. Xan Lyppiatt is a great character and a fictional example of a historical fact, well known by Theo, that evil men can be intelligent, charming, witty and good humoured.

P.D. James writes smooth, quiet prose of a quality not often seen in our genre. The first book is slow but interesting and the second is faster paced, there is more plot, but still quite reflective in spots. It's a very easy read, though, and I got through it in a couple of days but then, successful writers of detective fiction, her usual material, are not by nature turgid. The fans wouldn't buy it. The only flaw from a Science Fictional point of view is that no rationale is given for why births stopped or for why the Omegas are all good looking and cruel. A real SF writer would have dreamt something up.

The edition I read was obtained second-hand but it is certainly available on-line and possibly in good bookstores, too. There is a film called 'Children Of Men' but while it has the same title and the same premise it is so utterly different to the book that fans of the printed version hate it. However, the film has its own fans and taken on its own terms (the only way to take a film really) seems to be pretty good. I will buy it and let you know.

Eamonn Murphy

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