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The Children of Men.

P.D. James' latest novel is set in England in the year 2021 -- a bleak, future world without a future where the last child born on earth 26 years earlier has just died in a pub brawl.

The planet is in the grip of global infertility (a mysterious disease has made every man on earth sterile) and a seeming chronic lethargy: The human race is slowly dying, truly not with a bang, but with a prolonged whine.

Protagonist Theo Faron, an unloving and unlovable Oxford don, decides to record the last years of his and England's history in a diary, an admittedly futile exercise since there will soon be no one left to read it. But the effort is meant to be more catharsis than academic exercise, as Faron attempts to decipher what has gone wrong with the planet and his own sterile soul.

Outside the pages of the diary, Faron's power-obsessed cousin, the Warden of England, heads a dictatorship that delivers comfort and stability to the majority at the expense of justice and freedom for the poor and old. The last, coddled generation, the last of the children of men born 26 years before, rove the countryside in hedonistic, murderous gangs. The elderly -- unvalued by the dying, youth-worshiping human race -- choose death or are forced to choose it in a mass suicide ritual called the Quietus.

Religion is just another television entertainment, warm, fuzzy and devoid of any hint of the cross. Churches, mostly abandoned, are ideal places for secret societies that need to gather where they won't be disturbed.

Faron, who has lived his life largely without feeling, is jolted out of his placid existence by Julian, a young woman and former pupil turned inept revolutionary. Politically unimpressed, Faron nevertheless aids the girl and the small secret society she has joined when the group runs afoul of the Warden's fascist regime.

Though the first half of the book is hampered by an irritatingly smug, detached narrative, more a treatise on the ills of modern society than a well-structured story, the second half picks up in deft, Jamesian style. Julian becomes pregnant, and evil bureaucratic powers are soon in pursuit, eager to gain control of the "miracle" mother and her unborn child. A harrowing chase, coupled with an ambiguous ending, makes for an occasional interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory read.

James, a recognized master of the mystery genre, is on shaky ground with her first science fiction novel. Like most good science fiction, James' world in the year 2010 is solidly rooted in the 1990s -- a mirror image, magnified and distorted, but uncomfortably recognizable. Unlike most good science fiction, James' vision is simply not much fun.

There is nothing subtle or slyly witty to delight, no flashes of insight to ponder. It is a long scold from cover to cover.

More disheartening, especially from a writer with as sure a hand as James, is that there is relatively little story. The characters are cardboard and seem to scurry about more to make a philosophical point than to further the plot. Heavy-handed religious symbolism abounds.

Dressed skillfully but without much conviction in the trappings of science fiction, The Children of Men reads more like a conservative's finger-wagging, tongue-clucking sermon against modern mores than the edifying entertainment that James must surely have intended.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Crabtree, Penni
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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