Sci-fi Review: The Children of Men, P.D. James

In a World Without Innovation

Writer: Gracie Enticknap
Editor: Jasmine Lai
Artist: Patrick Marenda

Science fiction is a fascinating and transfixing genre which many consider the height of imagination. It takes science and technologies from real life, twisting and morphing them into fantastical or threatening innovations ingrained into futuristic societies. The Children of Men, however, takes a turn from this common trope, to build and explore a world in which experimental scientific solutions and innovation have failed to resolve impending human extinction.

The Children of Men, was written in 1992 by P.D James and takes place in the then-future year of 2021 (how meta is that). It’s a bleak, dystopian imagination of the future, where a global infertility pandemic has prevented the birth of any babies for 25 years, and with it society has descended into a state of emotional and economic chaos. Below the overtones of nationalism, authoritarianism, and racism, science relentlessly attempts to discover the cause of this issue and the solution to it. But in a world without the revolutionary technologies of artificial wombs or reproductive cloning, scientific efforts cannot be the hope and hero we so often expect it to be. 

The cultural impact of science is told in the novel through the social consequences of a society without children. Raising children is an integral part of all global cultures, and here, without it, we see how women push around empty strollers and pose as mothers, causing immense distress and delusion. As a central part of many relationships, the absence of children results in disconnection, tension and the unfolding of relationships in the novel. Through this, James suggests that with the loss of children comes the loss of the primary purpose for sex or love. This way, at the hand of innovative failure, James uncovers a world that is disinterested, even from recreation, as the imminent death of humanity drains the meaning from life.

This disinterested attitude, a sign of dejection and lack of confidence in the future, explains its society’s increasing comfort with authoritarianism. The novel therefore subtextually reminds us how science and democracy are mutually reinforcing institutions. Democracies depend on science to effectively address public problems and provide a model of rational deliberation. Science can provide a freedom from fear, from want and from hopelessness, but without objective public engagement in problem solving, without successful science and necessary experimentation, these problems are left at the responsibility of the government who take yield of people’s civil liberties to provide such freedoms

Here, the failure of science further intersects with authoritarianism, brutality, exploitation, and despair. Freedom from fear is manufactured by the Warden through banishing criminals to the Isle of Man, an island devolved into anarchy. Freedom from want is provided by the purchase and exploitation of migrant labour to serve and support the ageing population. Freedom from hopelessness, however, is the greatest incapacity of the government, and so with euthanasia and organised dying, society places a huge and haunting importance on suicide, or the so-called ‘Quietus’. It is here that the most tragic consequence of scientific failure is imagined and made palpable.

Throughout its subtext, James’ novel awakens us to the influence of science meeting our needs, resolving our concerns and being our hope for a better future. Yet with a childless future devoid of legacy, it would appear James believes that the ordinary, extraordinary human life we live and experience has lost its entire appeal. As sci-fi characteristically carries an element of truth, the gradual disintegration of society explored in The Children of Men is therefore a powerful telling of science’s impact on culture, the security it gives us, and a chilling reminder of our incredible reliance on scientific invention.

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