Friday, June 17, 2016

Classic Sci-Fi Meetup- Children of Men

For the last meeting of the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, we read and discussed "Children of Men" (1992) by P.D. James. More known for her crime and mystery novels, James' foray into science fiction has become more known since Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 film adaption, which is a pretty big departure in terms of tone and theme, while still hewing to the basic thrust of the novel.

"Children of Men" is set in a kind of slow apocalypse. For unknown reasons, the human race has become infertile, and thus the entire population is aging and looking towards their eventual extinction. Set in England, it follows our mild-mannered protagonist as he is drawn into a kind of bumbling revolutionary conspiracy with an unexpected secret. Spoilers below!

Classic Sci-Fi had just recently read Clarke's "Childhood's End" (1953), which has some thematic similarities, so we talked about that a little bit.

We also talked about Cuarón's film for a while just to get it out of the way. The film is much more focused on specific political topics than the novel--racial/ethnic injustice and state violence in a perpetual war on terror, to oversimplify it. We talked about the plot mechanics of the film, which situates the fertility issue with women rather than men. I actually liked that from an SF realism perspective--all men going infertile, let's be honest, would NOT present insurmountable difficulties for human reproduction; cloning or induced parthenogenesis have been established or at least well-theorized techniques for a long time, while the artificial wombs/eggs that would be needed to technologically rectify the world of "Children of Men", the film version, is much more believably difficult. From a purely cinematic perspective, we also talked about the emotionally effective techniques of really long takes that Cuarón uses throughout to induce fear and stress.

To return to the novel: we had surprisingly mixed reviews, I thought, with a good portion of the group really disliking it. Those of us who did like it (myself included) mostly cited James' style: very character-based, with a way of quickly and incitefully painting a character in a just a few anecdotes, while still hewing to the "show don't tell" dictum. Jasper's sexism, for instance. Those familiar with her crime & mystery work kind of laughingly pointed out how much better the writing got whenever she was describing a dead body or other crime-esque scene, and wondered if this might have been published largely because her publisher wanted to keep her happy and writing her very lucrative crime novels.

Much discussion of the "apathetic apocalypse" and novel-of-manners tropes throughout. I was reminded a bit of the "cozy catastrophes" of folks like Wyndham, where there might be general chaos/aliens/tryffids etc. out rampaging somewhere, but most of the story focuses on small, low-key scenes, food and drink and so on. Alan pointed out that James would have remembered Britain's rationing system from WWII and after, which can be felt in the book's approach to necessities.

Most of us found the protagonist, Theo, rather unlikable. Paradoxically, that's what I liked about him--there's a weird level of realism and empathy incurred by having a protagonist who's not villainous, not an anti-hero, just kind of a normal, mildly dickish person. However, we wondered quite a bit about the reliability of the narration--the book oscillates between Theo's journal entries, which are very self-conscious and possibly very edited, and tight third-person chapters that don't fill in backstory. Is Theo really as powerless as he claims? His connection to the Warden--the de facto tyrant--argues otherwise, as much as Theo tries to minimize it. And we thought that the bizarre final chapter, where he seems to assume control of England, only makes sense if he has that history and familiarity with the existing power structures.

We compared Xan, the Warden, to Cromwell, and also to the kind of Tony Blair-like politician that Ellis satirized with "Transmetropolitan" and the Smiler.

There's a lot of religious imagery and themes in the book, and Omega (the infertility crisis) reads more like a supernatural plague than a science-fictional epidemic. However, beyond the last scene suddenly taking on Nativity overtones (with Theo as Joseph? A guardian angel? God the father?) it was hard to unpack it from the clues provided.

What to make of Julian, the mother, we just don't know. She kind of seems less a character than a plot device, especially re: the "all shall instantly fall in love with me" field that surrounds her. We also thought that, given the premise that it's lack of fertile sperm that is dooming the human race, it is utterly unforgivable that she keeps the father a secret, even allows him to be killed when he could have been saved.

The conspirators are really rubbish, by the way.

We compared the dystopian aspects here to Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale", Orwell's "1984", and Huxley's "Brave New World." That started us off on cool little tangent about British Authoritarian dystopia, vs. American techno-dystopian, and where Japanese dystopias ("Akira" etc.) fit in. Also learned about the near-coup of the British government as recounted by Peter Wright in "Spycatcher".

All in all, I thought it was a pretty fun read, and I've had it on my list forever. Next time for Classic Sci-Fi, we're reading Vonngeut's "Slaughterhouse Five", followed by Delaney's "Babel-17" in August.

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