Children of Men, by P. D. James

May 24, 2011 at 13:31 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )


James writes a very imaginative premise, and carries it out very competently. Her ideas and her science are, unfortunately, significantly better than her writing, and the most immediate of her irritating habits emerges almost at once, and must be mentioned in any serious review of this book: her pathalogical need to draw detailed, grotesquely clinical and entirely unnecessary portraits of each and every character. Heaven preserve us when her sulky protagonist enters a room full of people.

It means without exception that each one of them will in turn be given the James treatment. Wide mouths, freckled olive skin, pixie ears, classical necks, or even just like that fellow from that movie in the ’30s. Remember him? No? Well, this character looks just like him. James needs to learn that readers don’t want this. Even readers who think they do, do not. Even without the entirely deviant adaptation of the book (with all its colouring and shaping of the characters it portrayed), these bizarre diversions into fotofit description are entirely unnecessary, and will drive the most patient reader to distraction.

Beneath this distracting obsession, there is a distinct absence of cheap science fiction props in the story. James seems to have made the decision to focus on the moods and attitudes of people in a post-apocalyptic world rather than the types of scooters they use, and even the strange tribal divisions of society play a clear second fiddle to the questions of the semi-voluntary euthanasia, the depression and anxiety, the boredom and the nihilism that is starkly opposed to the Christianity of Luke and Julian (not that their faith really means a great deal in the larger context of the story).

While this choice does go some way to boost and enhance the story, James’ vain attempt to make this a story of two men is as unfortunate as it is clumsy. Theo and his estranged cousin Xan (who is not, all evidence to the contrary, a klingon–apparently it’s an old English name) are written from the start as eternal rivals. Theo is a rich protagonist, although we have more backstory and time spent in his head than we really need to understand him. Xan, on the other hand, is nothing more nor less than another faceless dictator, and every link between the two is strained and unlikely. Despite the brave effort to show Xan’s motivations and his ruthless adherance to his unknown and unmentioned “principles”, he is simply too much of a nonentity for either his plight or his wickedness to really strike home. The lacklustre duel at the climax of the book is the final nail in the coffin of that second, cheaper story of two brothers in conflict, leaving readers mourning the stagnation of an otherwise cleverly written and much more cleverly imagined novel.


  1. Joachim Boaz said,

    Have you seen the movie version by Alfonso Cuarón with Clive Owen, Michael Caine, and Julianne Moore? It’s TOP notch — I highly recommend it!

    • Joachim Boaz said,

      Perhaps the one case where the movie is better than the book!

  2. J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

    I certainly did. Something stiff and elitist in me rebels against the notion of a film adaptation being better than the book upon which it is based, but if ever a candidate surfaced, this might be it. Stunning cinematography, sensibly proportioned use of special effects, and most of the alterations made to the story were positive, and corrected some of the sore points I mentioned above.

  3. Joachim Boaz said,

    Definitely! I thought it might be a good example since you seem to have really hated the book –I haven’t read it yet, but, am not tempted… haha

  4. J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

    Oh, I don’t know about that. Hate is a very strong word. It was a brilliantly-conceived story with some well-written themes, let down by poor characterisation and some distracting schoolboy mistakes. I might cautiously recommend the book to committed fans of the genre, and I wouldn’t necessarily write off P. D. James entirely. If the mistakes were not so ubiquitous, I might hazard that they were simply down to bad editing; but I’m still willing to give her at least a small piece of the benefit of the doubt.

  5. Joachim Boaz said,

    Ok, thank’s good enough for me because I’m a committed fan of the genre 🙂 I review complete crap (occasionally) unashamedly — hahaha

  6. Joachim Boaz said,



  7. David said,

    Thanks for this review — I’ve been wondering about the book ever since I saw the movie. It’s pity James didn’t have the artistic skill to carry out her strong conceptions. The only part of your review I’d like more elaboration on is the statement of the contrast between the world’s depression and nihilism and Luke and Julian’s Christianity. I don’t recall those characters being Christians in the movie (and Luke is definitely a bad, misguided sort there), and you do say it doesn’t make much of a difference in the story’s larger context, but is anything done with it? How is their Christianity portrayed?

  8. J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

    David, it’s a theme that is explored briefly, and James’ Luke is certainly not a villain in the book, but he and Julian are both painted as being somewhat idealistic and starry-eyed. James comes of a generation of writers a little less overtly hostile to Christianity than today’s norm, but ultimately their beliefs and creeds are a distant second to their physical and interrelational struggles. She spends a little more time developing the general hopelessness of the world at large, and paints the suicide clinics and the objectification of humanity very starkly indeed, and there is no sweetness to the government’s suicide programme, as there was in the movie.

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