The Children of Men, by PD James. Book report #36 (2022)

The Children of Men, by PD James. Pub 1992

Sperm counts around the world declining 
“Suicide is generally available to people. (MAID helps people) who, for physical and possible mental reasons, can’t make that choice themselves and do it themselves.” David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General for Canada.
Canadian retailer’s commercial celebrates the “hard beauty” of assisted suicide

These bits in the recent news were eerily familiar – features of the future world described by PD James in this 1992 dystopian novel. In that world, 1995 was the year of Omega, of the last human child being born. Leading up to that year, unbeknownst to the powers that be, male fertility had been declining, and at Omega plummeted to zero. There was no cause – it just was. As a result, the global population starts to both age and decline, and those left must plan for the inevitable end of civilization and life. A new program emerges – The Quietus, a ritual of group suicide by drowning. Participation is allegedly voluntary, and families receive a financial benefit after the person’s death. As times and civilization get harder, the rules for signing up relax and participation less voluntary. Other than the physical means of death, the similarities to the Canadian MAID program are scary.

I first read this book in the 90s. Like Julian Barnes, this book was a discovery made in an airport bookstore before boarding a long flight to/from England. After reading, it became a lifelong favourite, although like with so many others of those, I hadn’t read it in many years. Unlike some of those others, this one does not hold up as well. The story and details are exceptional – both realistic and prescient, as well as memorable – but the characters and dialogue are clunky and lack dimension. Aside from the dialogue, the writing is very good, putting me in mind of Barnes frequently (perhaps because I discovered them contemporaneously?). So while I still enjoyed it, I didn’t love it as much.

Most people who know of this story know it from the 2006 film. While many of the details are the same (the Omega, the Quietus, the central plot), the film characters and the plot are (mostly) more believable and the flow of the story more consistent. The visualization of the ruined world that PD James tried for in the novel is breathtaking and horrific. It’s a rare exception for me of where the film is better than the book.

Fate: the book itself is a keepsake from that trip and remains a favourite story despite its flaws, so it will return to its place on my shelf.

1 – a book with a murder
8 – a book with a female author
9 – a book that has been made into a film
28 – an old favourite

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