When I heard about PD James’ The Children of Men, I was completely intrigued. The world seemed so interesting. Sure, there are plenty of post-apocalyptic worlds, because there are always teenage boys. But this appeared different. In this world, there were no children, like a reverse Lord of the Flies. For some reason, never explained, births just stopped. After a few months, things became frantic. Then things became strange. As we begin the novel, the Omegas, the final children, are 25 and a little bit feral.
It’s a great setup for a political novel, or an action novel, or even, perhaps, an epic.
Unfortunately, Ms. James didn’t write any of those books. She normally writes horror novels. That’s not necessarily a stumbling block. Stephen King wrote plenty of story novels, but could also change and write action epics. Quality epics, too, like the Stand and the Dark Tower, with a sense of the heroic. Ms. James didn’t change. She describes forests, and drives, with a sense of constant foreboding. At any point someone might come out of the woods, or a tire might puncture, or they might get discovered. The plot is driven by fear, in general (though there are a few exceptions).
More tragically, Ms. James took this wonderful setting and wrote an Old Person Novel. About halfway through, I looked to see the age of the author. She was about 70 when this book was written, which is what I had guessed. Not all elderly people write Old People Novels; age is not sufficient, but it’s necessary. An Old Person Novel has a protagonist middle-aged to elderly. The main character doesn’t live in the present; every event throws them to the past, or reminds them of some cause from 25 years ago, or forces a memory. Because of this, the novel proceeds sluggishly. It lives primarily in the internal past, not the external present. To compare, think of the great epics. For that matter, think of Harry Potter. People talk about what happened before, Snape and Dumbledore and Hermione and the rest. The time for the past, though, is not the action; it’s at dinner, or in class, or at night. When conversations are hurried, the information induces an immediate decision. The events form them, but don’t consume them. Here, the character is absorbed.
I don’t need to talk about the past of Theo, the protagonist, because it doesn’t matter. He’s a melancholy, lonely, nonheroic man, and he remembers only how he became melancholy and lonely. Even when the time arises for him to be heroic, paragraph after paragraph is wasted on what he thinks and how it relates to the past. This happens even in the penultimate chapter! When I’m in a pressurized situation, I don’t walk focused on the past; I focus on the present. There’s too much at stake. I don’t know how a writer can make such an error. Maybe Ms. James has been away from action for so long, that her life is just memory, that she believes that’s the way people think. Or maybe I’m too young to understand the approach of an Old Person Novel.
I started on page 1 hoping for an heroic epic, or at least an interesting politic. At page 241, I got a flawed, trite semi-redemption. That’s the modern thing, which Ms. James understands better than I. She’s a Baroness, a Life Peer in Britain’s House of Lords, and … well … I rent an old house. Tough. If this is the future, with Old Person Novels and non-heroic tales, then I’d rather find my own memories. The Children of Men gets a 1 out of 5.