When a book inspects your views and finds them wanting, you know it is special. This one qualifies. It's a good yarn, and a poser.
Anyone who has seen the film or its trailers knows the premise: in the year 2021, 26 years after the last human was born, England has become the last holdout against the chaos that has engulfed much of the world. Its leader, Xan Lyppiatt, has been in control of England as the last Warden, and he has instituted changes to keep the aging population comfortable as resources dwindle.
Immigration, for example, has been curtailed except for a select number of Sojourners, whose presence is necessary to perform basic, laborious services. They are deported back to their home countries against their will, knowing that death will come early there. The elderly are encouraged to take part in a new ritual, Quietus, in which they float out to sea in a voluntary suicide. All citizens are forced to endure fertility tests, and the government supplies its populace with pornography to try to combat sexual apathy.
Xan's cousin, Theodore Faron, is an Oxford don whose classes have become diversions for older students in the absence of the young. He is approached by Julian, a woman who had caught his attention in his class on Portrait of a Lady by denouncing Isabel Archer's passivity, who asks him to bring to the concerns of a small radical group to the attention of his cousin. Reluctantly, he agrees to do so after he verifies their concern about the Quietus by observing its brutality.
Xan listens to his cousin's concerns, but answers them, point-for-point, in a classic clash between an advocate for the needs of the many vs. an advocate for the needs of the few. (One senses Mr. Spock nodding as Xan speaks.) He agrees that the Quietus that Theo observed was mishandled, and promises to monitor the ritual in the future. However, the other concerns that the radicals brought up are countered, point for point. The Sojourners can not stay, he says, because they would increase the strain on the already-disintegrating resources and means of distribution, hastening the deaths of many. Fertility testing is a last-ditch attempt to find a miracle, one fertile male and one woman who could bear a child. Any government would do the same in this circumstance - in fact, it would be irresponsible not to.
The issue that caused me the greatest soul-searching dealt with the island prison to which violent criminals were exiled. Conditions on the island were brutal. The government provided materials for basic sustenance, but did not prevent the strongest and most psychotic of the criminals to torment, torture, and kill the weaker. The dissidents wanted the government to step in, to send peacekeepers, as it were, to protect the rights of the exiled.
Xan's response made me wonder whether extreme circumstances could ever justify abandoning our civil rights advances and allowing such a hell to exist. Circumstances certainly had eliminated the pretense of rehabilitation: there simply was not enough time. The citizenry did not deserve to fear being victimized by criminals at this late date. And besides, Xan asked, who would give up the last years of his life to police the island? Would you?
P.D. James sets up this situation, an unsolvable puzzle in the context of the novel. Might the actions of current leaders be caused by their belief in the extremity of the present? It certainly sets up a dynamic, a Pushme-Pullyou philosophical problem - how does one judge the extremity of circumstances, and how far should individual rights be stretched to protect the many?
Without revealing plot details, I will say that what happens in the last few paragraphs of the book dwarfed all of the previous horror. One earlier tableau haunts me. It had become the fashion for women to stroll the London streets pushing exquisite dolls in perambulators. That alone would be creepy, yes? One such woman stops to allow another woman to coo over her doll, her baby. Suddenly, the other woman lifts the doll from its pram, smashes it to the ground, and walks away. Bereft of her baby, the first woman opens her mouth and howls in pure animal anguish. That howl continues to distress me, and to cause me to wonder what I would do, how far I would go to spare her that agony - to spare us all.
"Teach us to number our days," says King David in Psalm 90, "that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Children of Men, enjoined to "return to dust" by the psalmist, is dystopian fiction at its most frightening.