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 Her protagonist Theo Faron, a lecturer at Oxford, has withdrawn from his English government advisory role and has, with the rest of the country, been a silent witness to increasing autocratic control.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.

Characters 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.


* Repost of review first published 6th August 2013. Baroness James died in Oxford on 27th November 2014, after this review appeared; this dystopia is set in 2020, exactly a century after her birth; the dystopia we face is of a different order to that which she envisioned here, but it is a dystopia nevertheless.

33 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.

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    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!

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  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.

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    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.

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  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.

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    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.

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  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.

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    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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  5. It’s truly great when someone who knows England, her politics, landscape, and who is well read, does a review on a fellow English writer.

    Your context and specially your unraveling of the names and symbology, enhanced my experience of this book, and will forever seal it as a very dear title.

    I appreciate the equanimity and affection you gave to this author who is new to me, and whom I will continue reading.

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    1. I’m so glad you found this review intriguing enough to want to read the novel, Silvia, and also helpful in deepening your appreciation of it — it’s one of the joys of book blogging when another reader gets to share the pleasure in a book! And I’m grateful for your assessment of my fairmindedness, something I strive to do as often as possible even when my instincts may be to rant.

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      1. Your fairmindedness is as interesting as your opinion. And it’s true that I can see how your reviews always aim (and succeed) at presenting the books respecting them as a whole, loving them, and always sharing with your didactic natural style which you also make very personal.

        What makes a reviewer and a writer — specially non fiction — great, in my eyes, it’s the fact that he or she always tries to be clear as to what is his opinion, try to keep his biases in check, and give praise when praise is due. That’s an art that’s so lost these days when we are so used to dwell so much on opinions, and never try to see pass them and find a common ground where to take our thoughts, views, assessments, etc, and where to be enriched by other people offerings.

        I do love reading readers’s blogs for this very reason. I learn so much, and they always help me shape my views, challenge my opinions, and enrich my reading life, which is such an important part of who I am.

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  6. Great review Chris. I think this was made into a passable film quite a few years ago, wasn’t it? Interesting ideas. I’ve never read PD James, though feel I should. Your review encourages me to give her a go

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    1. Yes, I mentioned it but only in passing in the review, and it’s certainly a film I’d like to watch again (especially as I missed the opening sequences). Though a little dated, almost old-fashioned, the novel is definitely worth a read — given your own dystopian tastes in fiction, and given that we’re fast approaching the date in which her novel is set! I always meant to reread 1984 in the year that was set, especially as Orwell was completing in in the palindromic year of 1948, which was also the year I was born. Perhaps now is the time for that delayed reread.

      Here’s the trailer of Cuaron’s film, if you want to ogle Clive Owen again…

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      1. I was so heartbroken reaching the end of 1984 I haven’t been able to reread it since! I was in my early 20s at the time and had a romantic notion of love being the strongest thing in the world (watched too many movies, set too much store by Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre etc). To see poor Winston metaphorically throw his love under the bus like that … Now, that was chilling.

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      2. I much prefer James’ novel to Cuarón’s adaptation, but I must say I liked the film better the same – perhaps because I watched it with the subtitles on and got to appreciate the dialog better. Strangely, the film is so loud that much of what the characters say is lost on one unless one *reads* the words. Once you get all the words, the film becomes far richer.

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        1. I don’t know if it’s age but I frequently resort to subtitles for films, Robert, for similar reasons as yours. Also for names, especially when there is a large cast involved. I think the way I approach many adaptations, especially the very loose ones like Cuarón’s, is to think of them as so different as to be unrelated.

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  7. Fascinating! I’ve read a lot of her Dalglish books, though I began to find that she seemed to be stuck rather in a past that I wasn’t sure ever really existed outside academia-inspired fiction. But I haven’t read anything else by her. This sounds intriguing, if perhaps a bit too full of over-weighty symbolism? I do remember the growing concern over what seemed to be a big increase in male infertility a couple of decades ago – maybe we just don’t hear so much about that concern now because it’s been dwarfed by climate change. So many ways for us to achieve our very own dystopia! I must look out for this one…

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    1. I’m the reverse, not having read any of her Dalgliesh novels, only this dystopia, her true life crime study and her Austen tribute.

      As to the symbolism, it’s an aspect that interests me but may not be evident to other readers and probably doesn’t impinge on the narrative. But our growing proximity to disaster? As you may suspect, it’s not really our choice to make any more now, is it.

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  8. Sounds intriguing, to say the least, but also quite far from the movie it inspired… I wonder how I would approach James’ outspoken political stance embedded in the novel, as you say – you made me very curious indeed, Chris!

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    1. I found it best to imagine James’ tale as written somewhat earlier in the century, it was almost like Chesterton in its conservative and religious approach rather than, say, Orwell from his midcentury, postwar stance. That distancing made it easier to accept her narrative tone.

      As you say, rather different from the Cuaròn screen version which had a more contemporary and realistic vibe. Still, I would be happy to reread sometime, though not for some time! 🙂

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        1. I’m always impressed by non-native speakers command of English idiom, one I was slow to take up when learning French as a kid. But as a compounding of “turn of the screw” and “twist of the knife” a turn of the knife is even more effective in the act of a backhanded back-stabbing compliment, Ola! 😁

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          1. Thank you very much!
            Idioms are a bugger to learn and a wonder to use, and I think they are the most revealing part of every language – as you’ve indicated already in your analysis of upside-down, Chris. My favorite example is not exactly an idiom, but something very similar – German expression Schadenfreude, which doesn’t have its analogy in Polish or, in fact, English 😉

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            1. Schadenfreude has been happily ‘loaned’ (stolen?) into English, possibly because of its untranslatability, and has the kind of verbal power that zeitgeist has (which, somehow, ‘spirit of the times’ doesn’t really touch).

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