If from infancy you treat children as gods, they are liable in adulthood to act as devils. - P.D. James, The Children of Men (1992)
The novel is markedly different from the film outlined above. While that adaptation is excellent, and in some ways even more political, the book may be one of the most sophisticated thought experiments in governance and justice recently put in narrative form. James draws heavily on her experience in the British civil service and justice system here, to delve deeply into some fundamental questions about what we expect of authorities as citizens. Does government exist to solve crisis or exploit it for power? How does one engage a population made numb and apathetic to disaster and threat? When resources grow increasingly scant, how does one allocate what remains?
In contrast to some more recent, post-apocalyptic scenarios (e.g. Justin Cronin's The Passage or Cormac McCarthy's The Road) grounded mainly in violent upheaval or disease-ridden chaos, James' imagined ending for the world is mainly a demographic decline. It draws more on the dystopian outlines of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or J.G. Ballard's Kingdom Come. It is a portrait of England in slow, inexorable and largely silent decline - but is all the more disquieting on that account.
For the last sixty years we have sycophantically pandered to the most ignorant, the most criminal and the most selfish section of society. Now, for the rest of our lives, we're going to be spared the intrusive barbarism of the young, their noise, their pounding, repetitive, computer-produced so-called music, the violence, their egotism disguised as idealism. - Ibid.
One of the most immediate features of the book, which will either repel a reader or move them, is the tone. The voice of both protagonist - a deeply cynical, damaged historian of Victorian England - and narrator drip with an exhausted, existential scorn. As if the world's end cannot come quite fast enough, that the vanished births and lost children of the planet are for many a mixed blessing. That our lives are filled with those souls who simply wish things would peter out at last.
That James can sustain the reader through this hopelessness for the first half of the novel speaks to her talent at meting out the details of a youth-less world in a series of uncanny episodes: one is witness to the baptism of cats and dolls by the desperate and child-deprived; one shudders as barges of elderly, too costly and legion to care for, are drugged and put out to sea; one is captivated as all of England, indeed the world, abandons its countryside and retreats into the closed safety and amoral distraction of its cities. And then when it all seems too desolate for words, a revelation.
Man is diminished if he lives without knowledge of his past; without hope of a future he becomes a beast. We see in every country of the world the loss of that hope, the end of science and invention, except for discoveries which may extend life or add to its comfort and pleasure, the end of our care for the physical world and our planet. - Ibid.
If that sentiment rings true to you, then that is another reason to read the novel. For it is as mentioned, apart from being a great morality play set in end times, also a powerful reflection on the frustrations, limitations and contradictions of government. James clearly has crime on her mind, as a social ill, and asks just how many of us are prepared to exchange our liberty for a little temporary safety. A great many of us, would be her view. Far more so than we care to admit.
Going further still, she paints a portrait of society at wit's end trying to cure criminality, or even punish it. Instead, reverting to old historic practices, criminals are simply banished. In a slogan we've heard a million times in the past decade, one autocrat of her imagined British Westminster system insists to a critic that "other freedoms are pointless without freedom from fear." Another remarks (a shadow of Thatcher that "generosity is a virtue for individuals, not governments. When governments are generous is with other people's money, other people's safety, other people's future."
Which goes to the core of James' imagined England of the 2020s (and arguably our security-minded governments of today): would we really think of ceding that role to government, to eliminate all fear? As the novel winds its way to an ending, that is the vision we are left contemplating, a unelected system of authorities ready to carry out any action or crime if only to keep its cowed population from the fear before them. Not at all comforting this image, but awfully compelling.