I had not heard of The Children of Men until reading about it in an article about P.D. James after her death a few weeks ago. I was somewhat surprised to see it listed as one of her best known novels. Browsing in the library a few days later, I came across the book and promptly checked it out.
It is quite a change from the crime novels for which she is so well-known. The Children of Men presents the chilling picture of a dystopian future in which humankind has mysteriously become infertile. No child has been born for twenty-six years. An aging population, bereft of the joy of children in their midst, tries to find pleasure in the birth of pet animals, and in old video and sound recordings that are now the only place to see and hear children.
Surprisingly, people find little pleasure in sexual activity, despite no longer having to worry about unwanted pregnancies. I wondered what had caused James to expect that things would turn out this way. She seems to suggest that even when people do not necessarily want to procreate, the possibility of doing so is so inherent in the sexual act that when it becomes impossible, sex becomes meaningless.
I don’t know whether that would be the case, but I found an interesting essay reviewing a wide range of utopian and dystopian literature, and one common theme is the danger of having all one’s desires fulfilled. “Perpetual enjoyment of what you enjoy paves the path to satiation, to the inability any longer to desire, and thence to misery.”
I have certainly noticed this with regard to food. The enjoyment of a special treat decreases when it can be enjoyed more often, until it is hardly enjoyed at all once it is no longer special. Would the same be true of sex, despite the strong biological urges that have enticed so many people to transgress social and moral norms?
I would not like to have to experience the dreariness of the world depicted in this novel in order to find out. A world where humans have no future is a world without hope. (Some few still believe in God, but they are not portrayed in a particularly positive light.) With no meaningful future, people live for the moment, for whatever comfort they can find.
I had not thought previously about how much of people’s commitment to working for the good of others depends on the assumption that others will outlive you. Parents gladly sacrifice for their children, and adults work to help youth in general because they are seen as our future. But what if that future were non-existent?
The main character, Theo, is approached by a small group of people discontent with the government’s dehumanizing policies. They want him to talk to his cousin, the Warden of England, who rules with a semblance of democracy but in fact is more of a dictator, albeit an apparently benevolent one.
The problem is that most people are content with the status quo. They have been promised “freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom,” and they’re not about to give up this security for high-minded ideals, certainly not to help people who are seen as having brought their own troubles on themselves.
In every society, a large number of people feel that way. But change comes about when a few people, willing sacrifice time, money, and perhaps even their lives, for the cause of improving society, spread their vision and gain wider support. But in a society where any change will last only as long as the people currently alive, it would no doubt be hard to get people to think it worth giving up much of anything.
Hope is essential. English essayist Joseph Addison said that “Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” The people in this novel can find things to do, and they bestow love on pets as substitutes for children, but nothing can give them hope, unless a miracle happens.