T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” ends with a description of anticlimactic destruction: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” In The Children of Men, the world is facing a similarly unspectacular, silent annihilation. P.D. James’s novel explores a dystopia that is not dominated by a totalitarian regime. The sky has not been blackened, nor has nuclear fallout rendered the world unlivable. The collapse of human society is being expedited by the simple fact that a child has not been born in 25 years.
At first glance, Theo Faron’s world might not seem so dissimilar from our own. He lives in Oxford and works as a history professor. He buys groceries and visits his favorite museums. Theo may go through the motions of “normal” life, but things have been irrevocably and profoundly changed since worldwide infertility transformed humans into a doomed species. Theo prepares lectures and shows up at his classroom at the appointed time. However, the students awaiting his presence are neither young nor especially interested in what Theo has to say about history. Without a future glimmering in the distance, history has little meaning. And without the young, teachers like Theo merely serve to distract their peers from the unpleasant knowledge that the human species will soon fade away.
The Omegas, the last generation of humans, are aloof and dispassionate, while the rest of the population lives in a numb stupor. Like Theo, they do the best they can to imitate their former lives. The vitality that drove people to create art, be innovative, or advocate change is markedly absent, however. Britain’s affairs are managed by Xan, The Warden of England. Xan and Theo are cousins, and, like most people, Theo gives little thought to the Warden’s power. That begins to change when he is contacted by the Five Fishes, however.
The Five Fishes are far from complacent, and they believe Theo can use his relationship with the Warden to alter certain policies and procedures. At first, Theo is reluctant to contact Xan. He is brutally shaken out of passivity after he witnesses a Quietus – a state-orchestrated execution of the elderly staged to look like mass suicide. The violent and grotesque elements of the ritual motivate Theo to speak to Xan.
Theo finds himself unable to influence Xan’s priorities, but he abandons his attachment to subtlety when he discovers that Julian, a member of the Five Fishes, is pregnant. New life attracts the power hungry and desperate, however. And Theo, Julian, and a midwife named Miriam are forced to navigate a series of treacherous obstacles and betrayals in order to protect the unborn hope for humanity.
The Children of Men is a unique dystopia in several respects. The absence of an obvious villain is one example. There are clearly flaws in Xan’s governance. However, he does not seem to be an inhuman monster or a fundamentally evil entity. For the most part, he runs the country as though it were a massive hospice. He can’t “cure” his people of their infertility or their ensuing despair, so he focuses on providing some degree of pleasure and comfort. It’s difficult to condemn him for adopting this approach, even though it has negative consequences – like the Quietus.
The Children of Men is also a provocative dystopia because it illuminates our dependence on futurity as a source of motivation. Even those who, for whatever reason, do not directly add to the earth’s population expect the human race to live on. We all seem to subscribe to the implicit belief that there will be other generations to walk through buildings we’ve made, or read the books we’ve written. We are inexorably bound to the idea that there will be children to grow up in the world we leave behind.
The Children of Men was adapted into a feature film. There are significant differences between the novel and the film, but both are fascinating and disturbing.