A disturbing dystopia

Romano-British lead font, Icklingham, Suffolk with Chi-Rho symbol and alpha & omega
Romano-British lead font, Icklingham, Suffolk: Chi-Rho and Alpha & Omega (reversed) Brit Mus

P D James The Children of Men
Faber and Faber 2010 (1992)

Baroness James is best known for her modern-day crime novels featuring Detective Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who also featured in a popular television series starring Roy Marsden. Somehow, however, I find myself gravitating towards her other genres, non-fiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), literary sequel (Death Comes to Pemberley) and this dystopia, The Children of Men. It could be that I’ve already got a few other crime novels to catch up on, or that I’m more than a little partial to speculative literature, but I am glad to have tackled this novel first, especially to dispel the compelling images of the film version, Children of Men, which although excellent in many ways departs significantly from its source material. Some of the author’s persuasions also differ from mine — she is a peer of the realm, sitting on the Conservative benches, and a committed Anglican — so I was looking forward to seeing if her politics and beliefs affected my evaluation of her as a writer: she is the current President of the Society of Authors, no less.

Indeed, politics and religion run like rivers through this novel. It is a critique of totalitarianism masquerading as a benevolent despotism, of privilege assuming it has a right to power, of religion distorted into the worst forms of superstition. It depicts euthanasia pretending to be assisted suicide and negative discrimination one step away from eugenics, arbitrary forced repatriation of immigrant guest-workers (Sojourners is the euphemism) and the demonization and exile of petty criminals and dissidents. James’ targets are no less relevant to today’s political discourse as they were two decades ago.

And yet she is no lover of leftish liberal attitudes, as her voting record in the Lords shows and as is implicit in the pages of this tale. Her protagonist Theo Faron, a lecturer at Oxford, has withdrawn from his English government advisory role and has, with the rest of the country, been a silent witness to increasing autocratic control. The threefold promise of freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom from boredom has persuaded the general population that creature comforts can be guaranteed and that active participation in politics is unnecessary. For James, who has led an active life working in a tax office, as Assistant Stage Manager in theatre, in National Health Service administration, in the Police and Criminal Law Department of the Home Office, as magistrate, BBC Governor and member of the House of Lords, such passivity and acquiescence must be extremely distasteful. What then has brought this future England (the rest of the UK is virtually autonomous) to this state of affairs?

The scenario is a dread one. From 1995, termed Year Omega — the last letter of the Greek alphabet — all human males in the world have inexplicably become infertile, leading to a kind of social psychosis. The last generation to be born are so venerated and over-indulged that they have become anti-social and lawless, without fear of retribution. Older generations have settled into disturbing compensatory behaviours, such as nursing dolls and baptising pets. By the end of 2020, England’s 20/20 vision of its future has deteriorated for many into a despairing blindness. The autocratic Warden of England, Xan Lyppiatt, rules by diktat, he and four others forming the Council of England. His cousin Theo has issues of his own, and has withdrawn into the metaphorical ivory tower of academia, abandoning both his marriage (neither he or his ex-wife have recovered from the trauma of his accidentally killing their child) and his advisory role on the Council. He seeks limited solace in teaching Victorian history to a depleting reservoir of mature students, caring little for the present and, as an agnostic, caring less about the future.

Into his life suddenly appear the Five Fishes, counterpart of the five-man Council of England but opposed to all that they stand for. James’ story doesn’t have the feel of an allegory, but it is suffused with religious symbolism which helps our understanding of character motivation. Rolf, the putative leader of the Fishes, sports the name of a legendary Dark Age Danish king and shares the same aggressive attitude. His wife Julian (the registrar misspelled Julie-Ann on her birth certificate) recalls Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor who as well as unsuccessfully trying to return the Empire to traditional pagan values also attempted to reform state bureaucracy. His modern female namesake has the potential to aid England’s return not to paganism but to traditional democracy: she has as spiritual adviser an Anglican priest called Luke — perhaps in imitation of Luke the Evangelist who may have died a martyr — and together they have chosen the traditional Christian symbol of the fish for their organisation. The other members of the group are Gascoigne, who has an army background, and Miriam, a former midwife. They want Theo to use his influence on his cousin and childhood friend to agree to five reforms grounded on the virtues of compassion, tolerance, respect, justice and temperance. Against his judgement Theo agrees, but his approach to the Council meets with hostility and the Five Fishes resort to direct action, prompting Theo to relinquish his moral lethargy and precipitating the climactic scenes of the novel.

The novel’s structure — disaster and despair balanced by hope of redemption — matches the biblical quote from which James takes the book’s title: “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.” The destruction is the catastrophic collapse of male fertility, the return is the faint promise of mankind’s gradual disappearance being reversed. As the name Theodore means ‘God’s gift’ and Faron may be Old English for ‘handsome servant’, Theo appears to represent the means by which humanity, through his selfless actions, can be preserved. On the other hand Xan (short for Alexander) is an ex-military man, as ambitious as his namesake Alexander the Great was to conquer and rule, but leaving no imperial legacy after his death. The relationship between the two cousins descends into a kind of sibling rivalry, with echoes not just in classical legends but also the Bible, notably Esau and Jacob but also Cain and Abel.

Baptismal fonts have traditionally been inscribed with symbols such as the  Greek letters chi rho, the conjoined X and P representing the first two letters of Christos, the Anointed One. Either side were often placed alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the alphabet and often appearing as A and W (as in the illustration above). James significantly reverses the titles of the two parts of her novel, with Omega (though opening 2021) as a kind of ending and the latter part of the year called Alpha, representing a possible new beginning. As the book ends with a baptism of tears, the titles are entirely appropriate.

coronationringCharacters are largely well-rounded, particularly the main protagonists in the Fishes — Julian, Miriam, Rolf — while Theo subtly personifies the depression that most people in this dystopia must have sunk into as the years passed, no solution or even cause was found for male infertility and hope faded. When he is at last galvanised into action it is because he has a cause to believe in, companions — one in particular — to care about, and sheer adrenaline pushes him to achieve much, despite the odds. His cousin Xan was less well drawn, I felt. His friendship with Theo appears based on shared experiences, but he is an aloof companion, and it is later clear that his distant manner is a manifestation of future sociopathic if not psychopathic tendencies. The assumption of the royal Coronation Ring, as happens at the close of the book, is another potent symbol, not just of marriage to the state but, as with Tolkien’s One Ring or the Ring of the Nibelung, of corruption. We are reminded of Lord Acton’s famous dictum

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority…

Can anybody with almost unlimited power remain unaffected, even if their intentions are pure?

I finally want to mention the author’s depiction of landscape. Born in Oxford, she clearly has a love of the area, more than London or Dorset which only get brief passing mentions. The city of dreaming spires however doesn’t come over as favourably as Wychwood, an ancient area of mixed woodland and farmland in rural Oxfordshire: for it is here, despite the intrusion of horror, where idyllic retreats are possible, ancient features lie just below the surface and mankind’s redemption on earth becomes possible. It is almost a Blakean vision of the heart of England and adds immeasurably to the fascination of this disturbing tale.


9 thoughts on “A disturbing dystopia

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while now, but haven’t as yet because the book I’m writing is also a dystopian tale set in the near future, and I don’t wish to be either influenced by her vision, or as is more likely, despondent for not writing anything near as accomplished. Thank you for a wonderful review.

    1. Hope the review didn’t spoil it for you either, Dylan! Although James did work within the NHS for a while, I don’t think she’s particularly interested in the science behind her dystopia, more on politics and religion and their effect on individuals.

      But as many dystopian fictions feature a very varied cocktail of otherwise familiar disasters — society breakdown, totalitarian government, technological advances or reversals, and sudden environmental changes, for example — I’m sure your take on this genre will be very different from hers or anyone else’s. And, based on reading a few of your posts, stylistically very different too. And accomplished!

  2. Fascinating story for James, who I know only through several Dalgliesh novels and episodes on PBS. The trigger of sudden and total male infertility seems a bit far fetched – not that we aren’t seeing fertility problems in other species, but it’s not instantaneous – yet.

    Thanks for the review.

    1. You’re very welcome, Morgan. About twenty years ago there were reports of a steady decline in sperm counts which may well have furnished material when James was completing this book. But while new reports suggest this trend is continuing there is still debate about whether the sampling and methodology upholds this (as this news item from 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2012/dec/05/sperm-count-fall-is-it-real discusses).

      James shows no interest in a nuts and bolts explanation for a possible sudden catastrophic decline — no hard SF here — only in the social and personal fallout of such an event.

  3. Interesting. It sounds like there are a lot of ideas about today’s society that needs to be unpacked. It certainly sounds like there is a lot to think about. I chuckled when I read “The last generation to be born are so venerated and over-indulged that they have become anti-social and lawless, without fear of retribution.” Sadly, this could describe today’s American youth.
    Nice review; not sure if I could get through the book, but it I am tempted to try.

    1. Oh, I’m sure you could zip through the book in relatively little time — probably less time than I took to compose the review! — and it’s not particularly harrowing. There is still much that I could have burbled on about, such as why James switches from first person diary entries to omniscient narration when the whole of the story is told from Theo’s point of view. But it’s not at all unreadable.

  4. I love your analysis, Chris. This book is incredibly dear to me. Not a week goes by when something from its pages does not flit through my mind in response to my life. That Omega generation with its frenetic mercilessness; that scene with the deer in the church; what euthanasia is finally reduced to. An incredible piece of work to leave the world. Let us hope, not too prescient.

    1. I hope I’ve handled your precious cargo with gentleness, Kate. It is an extraordinary vision, a hymn of praise to what James holds dear and a warning that we mustn’t ever be apathetic about our future. I see now what you meant by the deer in the church, an image that reminded me a little of equivalent scenes from Studio Ghibli animations in their terrible beauty.

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