Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: John Misses the Point of Children of Men

George Orwell's 1984 envisioned a world overtaken by omnipresent totalitarian states. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World envisioned a world of soulless hedonists. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 envisioned a world where literacy and thought were under siege. These novels helped define dystopia for a generation of paranoid writers who had their own myopic and implausible ideas about how it could all go wrong. But not until P.D. James's Children of Men have we seen dystopia based around a horrible future that isn't so bad.

Rather than evil governments, the so-called problem of Children of Men is that humans can no longer have babies.

That's right. As of 1995, there were no more labor pains. No more ninth month pregnancies. No more ungrateful infants crying for a bottle at 2:00 AM. No more kids trying to set the cat on fire. No more six-figure college tuition bills.

Apparently the people of James's fantasy world see this as a bad thing. It's said that male sperm count inexplicably plummets to zero, preventing any fertilization. Like me, you may have gasped in horror, but the book makes no claim that men can no longer orgasm. In fact later on it becomes very clear that even the crazy people who want kids still get it on, just with no chance of impregnation. Any reasonable person would think James had written a paradise. But apparently massive sexual freedom and the lack of little monsters who won't shut up in a movie theatre depresses James's cast. How? That's never explained to any reasonable satisfaction.

Originally published in 1992, there was some discussion over whether Children of Men was really Science Fiction. It (and its 2006 film adaptation) provides no scientific explanation for how the impotency plague happens, and it's not really plausible. Like a lot of modern SciFi, it's really just Fantasy where life sucks and walls aren't made out of dirt.

But critics missed a much more important misclassification: though branded as dystopia, James may have quietly written one of the great parodies of our age. She wrote up a world falling apart because there were no more diapers to change, insipid children's television to watch or need to budget Mommy's "me-time." It was as though James looked into the souls of all other dystopias and challenged them by making that same bleak future the result of something that would really be kind of a relief. "Hey Mr. Big Brother," she seems to challenge. "I can make life just as hopeless just by making it so people never have to look at another hideous baby picture on Facebook!"

Not in those exact words, of course. Facebook hadn't been invented at the time, and James would never write so straightforward a parody. She's British. They're very dry in their wit.

Further distracting from the SciFi/Fantasy and parody/dystopia debates is that Children of Men is, at its core, a Horror story. The 2006 film caught that and dirtied up its sets so much they might be re-used in shooting See No Evil 2 or Hostel 3: Summer Camp. The Horror doesn't come from a serial killer or giant monster, though. It comes from the scariest thing on earth: a baby is going to be born.

Yes, in this wonderful future where you never have to pay a sitter $100 just to have dinner in peace, somebody managed to fuck it up and get pregnant. The novel then follows the understandably crazy people who try to help her to safety - though never said explicitly, it’s easily inferred that the rest of the world would be pissed to learn babies were on the way again. The novel is full of a sense of dread. One day, the eponymous children of men might return. What a dystopia that would be.


  1. He could have achieved an even more troubling outcome had he stretched his concept to only men can have babies..imagine how sex would plummet to zero if the weaker sex were subjected to aforementioned labor pains, morning sickness and unexpectedly viscous pickle cravings. a far more disturbing thought. thank god it is only fiction...

  2. No more kids tv? Now that would be a disaster.

  3. haha, well said John

    I am reminded of a snippet from one of those books conveniently placed near the toilet in guest bathrooms that was a collection of grafitti seen in various other, more public bathrooms around the country:

    "Virgin Mary, we believe
    That without sin thou didst conceive.
    Blessed Virgin, thus believing,
    May we sin without conceiving?"

  4. But John, babies are really, really cute! Haven't you ever seen one?

    And, if there were "no more kids trying to set the cat on fire," the world would be overrun with cats! Litter boxes are way worse than messy diapers.


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