Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Book in Brief: The Children of Men

In the vast wilderness of special-interest groups, There is an insipid self-promoting collective called the "Child-Free Movement." These childless activists whine and whinge about the privileges and breaks parents get from government, employers, and culture. These privileges include school funding, tax cuts, more flexible sick leave, and the affirmation of the procreational lifestyle. Never has a refusal to beget children been so self-satisfied.

I wonder if any of these fringies have read P.D. James' speculative novel The Children of Men. In the not too distant future, men suffer from a mysterious worldwide sterility. The last child to be born was a Brazilian bastard born in 1995, and he has just died in a barfight in his early twenties.

The world has lost hope. Cultural treasures are being stored away in scarcely-believed hopes that some alien race will discover them after our extinction. Governments are preparing the youngest to live out their last years without any civilization to speak of, while they euthanize the oldest to keep costs down. Women crazed for want of children buy lifelike dolls and hold christenings for kittens. Omegas, the last-born generation, are imported from overseas to serve a country dying amid its wealth, while their native cohorts, spoiled by the veneration of their elders, run wild in the countryside.

Schools have closed for want of pupils, and the protagonist of the novel, a professor of history named Theo Faron, finds himself idle in a world creeping towards its doom. His only claim to fame is his family: his cousin is England's dictator, a domineering, ruthless man who has taken up the unenviable task of preparing his country to turn the lights off when its last citizen dies. This connection provokes a reformist group to contact Faron, seeking to relieve some of the more unjust policies: they object to the euthanasia, the burdensome fertility testing, and the immigrant slave labor.

Faron, characteristic of his milieu, half-heartedly makes an effort to lobby his cousin on their behalf, with little effect. The reformers begin a small campaign of samizdat pamphleteering and targeted sabotage, and Faron, fearing the attention of the police, skips off to see the continent before the terminal population decline creates instability.

Upon his return, a member of the reformists contacts him, and he discovers she is miraculously pregnant. Aware of his cousin's talent for exploiting fortune, Faron sets off with this heroine and her small band into the wilds of England, his cousin's police in pursuit.

The first several chapters of _The Children of Men_ made me think I had a minor classic on my hands--the equivalent of Huxley's _Brave New World_. In James' portrait of a child-free world, with its playgrounds destroyed, toy-shops curtailed, and youth fading, despair figuratively drips off of the page.

Yet the novel stalls when Faron confronts his brother and his deputies: their arguments are expository and without depth, their reformist impulses foreordained to fail. The story never quite recovers to fulfill its original promise.

Upon the discovery of a genuine unborn child, the shift from despair to hope is expected, but never entirely successfully induced by the writing. From a well-formed analysis of the protagonist and his society, we are launched into unsatisfying, perfunctory "thrill" chase sequences in which some people are killed. The most remarkable accomplishment of the second act is James' depiction of the first childbirth in decades, yet even that lacks that great momentousness which a better writer could have delivered.

The book is stronger in its imagination than its execution, yet I worry the upcoming movie could be a weakling all around. For one, the heroine in James' book is admirable in many ways, intelligent and experienced. Yet from all appearances in the movie she is no longer the pregnant woman, but rather a custodian or midwife for a young pregnant girl experienced only in gang warfare. I cannot recall the last pregnant movie heroine who gave birth by the end of the film, and we might see a repeat of that tired and exclusionary movie tradition.

Finally, I do not believe the Christian references will survive the transition. In the novel the cadences of the old Book of Common Prayer make their appearance, and a few targeted strikes at theological liberalism hit home. Several of the reformers, including the expectant mother, are Christian. Their hope is all the more apparent and scandalous in a hopeless world where science has failed to save mankind. Barring great determination, I do not think these features will translate to the screen.

Yet even so, the story should reverberate with the hope of Christmas, the Nativity. We might at last even remember the novelty of that prophetic phrase "unto us a child is born."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what a bunch of bs