At the world's end *****
This subtle and thought-provoking work of science fiction is quite
different from P. D. James' detective stories, but as well-written as the
best of them. The premise is brilliantly simple: in 1995, all over the
world, the human race has become incapable of propagation; now, in 2021,
an aging and dwindling population faces an existence without future, hope,
or apparent purpose. England has become an outwardly benevolent police
state, maintaining a veneer of normality with the tacit acquiescence of an
apathetic population. James does not belabor the process by which these
social changes have taken place, but her vision is all too plausible.
I read the novel in the movie-tie-in edition, with a picture of Clive Owen
on the cover looking through a broken window of grimy glass. From what I
have seen of the trailer, the photo is a perfect summary of the movie's
atmosphere of apocalyptic urban decay, but it couldn't be less suitable as
an illustration for James' book. I shall have to wait to see whether this
is merely a question of emphasis, in that the scenes shown in the trailer
perhaps do not represent the balance of the whole, or whether the entire
movie has been transposed to a quite different world. For now, I am
writing only about the book.
Although the future setting may take the reader into an alternate reality,
the book is still very much anchored in the familiar world of the present.
A common theme of all James' novels is what happens when the civilized
world, the comfortable world of the upper middle classes, is touched by
evil, and the books depend upon the author's ability to invoke that world
and its inhabitants. The first half of the novel takes place in and around
Oxford, the city in which nothing ever changes, as one character remarks.
And when the action goes further afield, it moves into the English
countryside, a little overgrown perhaps, but restored to its primal
richness and described with a loving eye. The more tense the action gets,
the more James seems to linger on brief vignettes of rural beauty.
The people are also reassuringly normal. Theodore Fanon, the leading
character, is a fiftyish professor of Victorian history, safe in his ivory
tower. Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England, though effectively the
country's dictator, is Theodore's cousin and childhood friend. The
four-person Council of England (one of whose members is described as "the
universal grandmother") seeks only to provide its people with "protection,
comfort, and pleasure" and give them a measure of dignity in which to end
their days. This is not Orwell's 1984; there may be ruthlessness here, but
no obvious hypocrisy or corruption. The evil, if evil there is, cannot
simply be ascribed to some Big Brother figure; it is always there as a
potential in people like ourselves, and there are several places in the
story in which apparently good characters are at least tempted towards the
ways of evil. I find the apparent normality of the characters and setting
truly frightening -- far more so than a feral wasteland where it is every
man for himself.
I described the book as science fiction, but it can also be read on other
levels. It is very much the work of an older writer facing a life that has
passed its mid-point. The universal childlessness can be seen as an
allegory for a perceived loss of purpose in modern society, reflected in
the pursuit of pleasure, the destruction of the environment, and the
dissolution of faith. As a minor but significant theme, this is also a
religious work, about the meaning of God in a world which seems to deny
the most significant aspect of his existence: his role as the Creator of
Life. But while these matters may provide food for later thought, I would
not want to make the novel seem too solemn. Quite simply put, it is an
excellent story, succinctly told, full of character, emotion, and
suspense, and suffused with nostalgia for the richness of English rural
life. Read it!
What is the Meaning of Life ***
I have never read a PD James novel before, and I read this because a good friend
of mine really liked it. I understand this novel may be a little different than
her other mystery genre novels.
Much like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, this novel is set in the not too
distant future. The crisis: every healthy person is apparently infertile. It is
the story of one man's journey to learn about himself and about fellow man as a
species and as companions.
The writing is fine, very British, very readable; the characters may be a little
stiff. The story was a little hard to swallow as far as people's behavior in
this situation, but I suppose in a world like this, everything would be hard to
understand. People have begun to question their faith, their leaders, and their
very reason for being. The ending was fairly moving, especially after the
somewhat cold first 3/4 of the book.
I guess this book is supposed to be a warning--a possible scenario for the end
of our species, other than the meteor hurtling unstoppably towards our planet,
the destruction of life through nuclear war, or the annihilation of our planet
by the supernova that once was our sun. The infertility of the human species is
simply inexplicable, and the author is very non-judgmental about what could be a
whole list of possible reasons, but the truth is, it really doesn't matter why.
Everyone seems to acknowledge that this is just the end of humans, and nature
will continue on without them as people age and die, without leaving offspring
to repopulate the planet, and without having the joy that comes with
propagation: the beauty of having children in our lives, even if they aren't our
Overall, a different kind of "science fiction" novel. An interesting take on an
age old question: What is the meaning of life? Not a bad read.