BOOK REVIEW / When all agreed to have no more babies: 'The Children of Men' - P D James: Faber, 14.99 pounds

THE YEAR is 2021, a quarter of a century after Omega, when official acknowledgment came that the human race had become sterile, and Theodore Faron, professor of philosophy and history at Oxford University, begins his diary. Part of the new-found drive to preserve and record humanity's last days for posterity or for putative visitors from another planet, it is his personal record of a society without hope of a future.

Britain is run by Xan Lippiatt, a cousin of Faron's, once elected to power, now holding office largely because the ageing population accepts the only purpose of government is to provide 'security, comfort and pleasure' in their final years. To this end, phones are tapped, and the country operates like a benevolent police state. Political debate is at best innocuous, and crime has all but disappeared; the few offenders serve life sentences on the penal colony on the Isle of Man. All morally and physically healthy men and women are subjected to six-monthly fertility tests; when the old become a burden on the state they are sent to the Quietus, a mass drowning ceremony. The Christian concepts of evil and redemption have been sacrificed on the altar of 'corporate social responsibility'; golf has replaced football as the national game, and massage become the sole sensual pursuit. As the symbols of childhood disappear, dolls are mass produced as a palliative to 'frustrated maternal desire', and sentimentality towards animals is elevated to worship.

Faron, sardonic, pompous and altogether reconciled to the status quo, meets a woman called Julian, who, with her ill-matched group of friends, the Five Fishes, questions the anodyne principles of Lippiatt's government, and is fiercely critical of the eugenics which underpin its policies on crime, the elderly and fertility. She is also, as Faron later discovers, pregnant.

From this point, The Children of Men returns to familiar James territory, as Faron and the Five Fishes flee the secret police so that Julian, a Christian, can deliver her baby in peace. As ever, James is best in close-up, on the agonising suspense of the race against time, on the details of place and atmosphere. Murder, when it comes, is relayed with the visceral horror familiar to fans of her detective fiction.

P D James excels in a form which has its own rules, where plot and atmosphere are all, and at describing how violent death leaves indelible stains on the polished surfaces of her middle-class world. She is an exemplary moralist, even if her humanitarian Toryism leaves you cold. But her skills as a crime writer cannot rescue this novel from the pit of banality to which it frequently sinks.

Thriller writers always have cultural familiarity on their side - we may never have trodden the streets of Miami, LA or Hampstead, or encountered a knifewielding psychopath, but television, film and newsreel ensure that at least their simulacra touch our imaginations. The best dystopian novels however - and I'm thinking here of books as diverse as 1984, Brave New World, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time - are testaments to their authors' political imagination. Framed by a plausible vision, they are populated by characters whose humanity invokes the sympathy and identification their alien context cannot.

James has never been a political writer. In her thrillers, she stays firmly within a conservative, 'common sense' framework. In The Children of Men she applies the same principles to a genre that by its very nature requires a shift of perspective and a major suspension of disbelief. Less forgivably, she patronises her readers. Furnish enough facts, she seems to say, and the novel's ideological force will take care of itself. So she supplies platitudes in place of contours - 'Even a small group could help if they arrived in love,' says Julian - and portent instead of debate. 'History tells me what happens to people who do (rebel),' Faron tells Julian. 'You have one reminder round your neck.' Even her politicians lack sophistication. 'If people choose to assault, rob, terrify, abuse and exploit others, let them live with people of the same mind' is the justification for the penal colony.

Nowhere does James hint at, much less explain, how humans lost their capacity to reproduce or how on earth Julian has managed to conceive (we are left to assume that because she behaves throughout like a ghastly Madonna and gives birth in a barn, that it is simply a wondrous miracle). How did this stifling atmosphere of universal consensus in which we are required to believe come about? James makes numerous references to the 1990s - women afraid to walk the streets, inner city riots and the like, but even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist would fail to find in these laboured observations the foundations for the imaginative world she tries to create.

The characters are functionaries. In Faron, James presents a protagonist whose role is that of observer rather than participant whose growing love for the impossibly saintly Julian exists merely to move the plot forward, while Rolf, the leader of the Five Fishes, is a crude cut-out of a dictator in the making. The sum of James's political thinking seems to be that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But cliches like this cannot breathe life, much less plausibility, into a still-born idea.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project