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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.