The Children of Men, a 1992 dystopian novel by P.D. James, takes place in a near future where, for unknown reasons, humanity has become completely infertile and now faces its inevitable extinction.
Before I begin this review in earnest, I would like to add one caveat: the 2006 film adaptation of this novel, Children of Men, is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I fell in love with it long before I ever set hands on its source material. The book and the movie have some substantial differences, and so my bias towards the film should be taken into account when reading this review.
A powerful premise
The Children of Men’s premise is one of my favorite extinction instigators in fiction: suddenly, without warning and for reasons that cannot be explained, the entirety of humanity finds itself infertile. After trying and failing to find a way to reproduce once again, it’s not long before people realize that humanity has been doomed to extinction—a slow, inevitable extinction as people age and die off with no one to replace them. I find this approach to the end of humanity to be refreshing; the quiet dying off of civilization is, in its way, far more terrifying than the plagues, zombie outbreaks, and nuclear wars that usually put an end to humanity’s fictional form, and it creates a fascinating context for the rest of the story to take place in.
James takes full advantage of her premise, using it to implement some incredible worldbuilding. One of my favorite aspects of her dystopian future is the “Omegas”: the last generation to be born before infertility set in. They are revered as an almost godlike people, and so they are spoiled and given whatever they want, whenever they want. This has turned them into a vicious and dangerous generation, preying on people and terrorizing them just for the sport of it. The Omegas are relegated to the background for most of the novel, but there is a sequence featuring the Omegas near the end of the book that is downright chilling and has haunted me ever since I finished reading.
Dissidents in a dying world
Through a standard third person narrative as well as a diary-format first person narrative, The Children of Men follows a man named Theo Faron. He is contacted by a group of dissidents known as the Five Fishes in the hopes that he will be able to speak to his cousin Xan, the self-appointed Warden of England, about the implementation of political changes in their country. However, the Five Fishes also bear a secret that could change the entire world.
Two distinct halves
Despite its short length and dystopian setting, The Children of Men is a very dense and very literary novel. The book is split into two sections. The first half is quiet and introspective, mainly involving Theo reflecting in his journal. I found this section a bit difficult to get through due to its weighty nature and focus on heavy exposition, but a lot of necessary information is covered throughout this part of the book, and much of it plays a key role later on. The second half is lighter and more fluid, and this is where I was really drawn into the story. The pace quickens significantly; it can take some effort to get through the first half of the book, but the story rushes on towards the end once you cross the halfway point. There are only a few key scenes in the book—most of them in the second half—but James writes them with such vividness and confidence that they are seared into your mind.
Why should you read this book?
The Children of Men is a tight, compact novel. James’s worldbuilding hints at the complexity of her dystopian future, but her book contains only a snippet of it, a sliver, and this works in the book’s favor. The Children of Men is a flawed novel, weighed down by its exposition-heavy first half, but its thunderous second section makes the book more than worth it.