The Children of Men by PD James


P. D. James is best known as the English crime writer behind the Adam Dalgliesh detective novels. In 1992 she turned her talents to dystopian fiction and the result was The Children of Men, a thought-provoking tale of the human race on the brink of extinction.

Set in 2021, no child has been born for 25 years. Under the despotic rule of Xan Lyppiat, the Warden of England, the old are despairing and the young cruel. Theo Faren, a cousin of the Warden, lives a solitary life in this ominous atmosphere. That is, until a chance encounter with a young woman leads him into contact with a group of dissenters. Suddenly his life is changed irrevocably as he faces agonising choices which could affect the future of mankind.

There is no denying that the concept behind The Children of Men is fascinating and one that is both believable and successfully explored by James. The book has numerous good points being well-written, often poignant and always encouraging the reader to think about diverse themes ranging from euthanasia to immigration. The greatest areas of interest to me were how the author showed that the understandable indulgence lent towards the last born children led to criminality in their behaviour and also how immigration is then used to fill labour gaps. But the most fascinating part of all was the look at how humankind's imminent extinction changes the behaviour and outlook of society in general.

The main downside was the strangely old-fashioned feel to the book, in that it felt like a book written and set in the 1950's rather than the intended futuristic setting. There was also a middle section in which I felt the story lost a lot of impetus. James purposefully made the lead, Theo, a man whom it is rather hard to like and while this was very brave, and although his redemption is integral to the story, he is not the easiest company to keep.

As ever a book is received differently by each who reads it. The review above just outlines my honest reading experience and while I was always interested and pleased to have read and finished the book the biggest issue I had was that it felt set in the past rather than in the future. This isn't an insurmountable problem as dystoptia does not need a future setting to  work but for some reason I find it difficult to recommend the book despite it being consistently interesting and well-written. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it at the time but as always I would suggest readers make up their own minds.

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