In P.D. James’ England of 2021, men are now infertile, no child has been born since 1995 — known as the Year Omega — and the country is slowly but inevitably shutting down. Smaller towns are deserted by government order, its residents moved closer to a city; Buckingham Palace is boarded up and empty, the uncrowned and ineffectual king living in a distant castle; the elderly are drugged and escorted onto barges to be sunk into the ocean, in a ceremony known as the Quietus. And in London, at the former Foreign Office, sits a five-member Council of England headed by a dictator who calls himself the Warden of England, Xan Lyppiatt.
His cousin, Theo Faron, is a history professor at Oxford, just turned 50 and divorced, childless, and solitary. His wife left him 13 months earlier for a younger man; twenty-five years before that, just prior to the beginning of the mass infertility crisis, Theo accidentally killed their only child, 15-month-old Natalie. An only child himself, Faron is his own best company and prefers living his scheduled, undisturbed life in a five-story house in St. John Street.
And yet, when he meets a young woman named Julian who’s part of a radical group called the Five Fishes, he finds himself uncomfortably drawn to her, even though she only approaches him because of his familial connection to the Warden . When they run into each other later at a public market, Theo realizes this lovely revolutionary has stolen his heart, but mindful that her short-tempered husband is the leader of Five Fishes, keeps his adoration under wraps.
However, unknown to the professor, Julian has placed her absolute trust in him, because she sends the group’s only other female member, Miriam, to fetch him one October night. Miriam won’t tell him why they’re on their way to a deserted church in a distant and deserted village until they’ve nearly arrived, when she finally breaks the news: Julian is pregnant. Theo naturally doubts Miriam, but soon enough establishes Julian is indeed the first pregnant woman since mid-1994.
From this point forward, over the span of only a few days, the story focuses on the frenzied rush to find a safe and isolated place for Julian to give birth. A Five Fishes member has betrayed them, and Theo and the remaining members know they must protect Julian and her baby from Xan. James, always a master of mystery and suspense, maintains a razor-thin edge of desperation, terror, and joy as the tale races to its stunning conclusion.
Perusing The Children of Men during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic is an unsettling experience; readers can truly envision an inexplicable worldwide event causing universal male infertility as they live through the spread of an exceptionally contagious and deadly disease with no known cure or vaccine.
Those who loved the 2006 film (which is set in 2027) will be astonished by the many differences from the 1992 speculative fiction novel. However, the underlying tale of a literally sterile dystopia remains the same. Both are masterpieces in their own right, the rare instance when the film is just as good as the book.
A 2018 retrospective of Alfonso Cuarón’s film