Mass infertility leaves a dwindling society listless and jaded, but hope and faith lies in the hands of the meek. This story has a reflective deepness.
In the near future, for inexplicable reasons, humans have lost the ability to reproduce. The backdrop of this story is the slow descent of a dystopian decay. As others have noted, there is no cataclysmic event that sends this world into spiraling chaos. No asteroid has crashed into the planet and spread a galactic virus. Instead, people just stop having babies and slowly and steadily, things just get weirder and weirder. People are just going on with life with no youth about the place to inherit their progress and mistakes. Interestingly, the natural world is gradually creeping back into the life of man, squeezing in from all sides. The wilds of the world are returning.
We see the story through the perspective of the main protagonist, Theo, who is a professor. The author switches between diary entries by Theo and a third-person narrative. The flipping back and forth is a strange choice, and I’m not sure if I liked that element. The point of this was to build-up Theo’s background and flesh out his relationship with the story’s chief antagonist, his cousin, Xan.
Theo’s whole life has been ineffectual, spending most of his childhood growing up in the shadow of Xan whom excelled at everything he set his mind too. Both Xan and Theo have sort of detached relationships with their families and people in general, however it’s clear that Xan is even more detached. Xan’s character seems to be ambitious merely for the challenge of it. As if Xan has sat back and observed society simply to figure out what people consider interesting and then decided that that is what he ought to do. Indeed his adept abilities propel him so far a front that he manages to get himself appointed dictator of England in this new world, taking the title “Warden”.
Xan has managed to take power, but maintains some illusion of democracy by installing three goals for this government’s last hurrah in the fading future: freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom from boredom. He caters to the base needs of man. The Isle of Man becomes a dumping ground for prisoners and dissidents and nobody even dreams of forgiveness and redemption or second chances. People are forced to learn skills that will be necessary in the future. Fertility tests are mandatory for society’s best and brightest in the hope that there might still be a small chance that someone will be able to reproduce. The old are encouraged to end their lives with dignity before they become too much a of a burden on society’s waning population, a phenomenon called “The Queitus.” Also, the state has opened pornography centers to cure boredom.
Theo, being Xan’s cousin, enjoyed an advisory role on the Warden’s special council. However, when the story begins, we learn that Theo has left this position because he discovered that nobody really cared what he had to say. We get the impression that even though, he had no real “voice” in things, Xan wanted him there–perhaps as a last vestige of human connection. Both of them are detached, but they have no real family relationships other than each other. That bond can’t seem to die, however seemingly unimportant the two make of it.
The character of Theo is deeply flawed and it is difficult to completely give over to him. We learn that his life is marred by a failed marriage, one that he had entered into because his chosen mate seemed to fit all the necessary requirements. He was never motivated by love. He doesn’t seem to know how to love. This trait is, of course, echoed ten-fold by Xan, whose decisions are based on reason, pragmatic rationality and ambition. However, Theo’s past is further scarred by the horrible death of his own child, which he has disassociated himself from.
What is really deep and profound in this story, is the love that does motivate these two apathetic characters. Theo has not ever learned what love is and perhaps Xan’s detached disposition has rubbed off on him. So, when Theo leaves the Warden’s council he has an opportunity for personal growth.
Xan is driven by ambition and power and though his methods are cruel, he seems to lack a sadistic mindset or will. He doesn’t have these kind of feelings. Steps are taken which will bring about the logical results he wants. If certain unpleasantness must be engaged to accomplish his goals, then that is just what is necessary–he takes no particular pleasure from this. Is Xan an amoral Vulcan?
And yet, there is still a thread of desire in Xan for something more. He hangs onto Theo as if the protagonist is his last chance at being a “real” person. Theo is his sole representative of family—of brotherhood—of connection beyond simply a means to an end. He is not happy that Theo has left the council, but he will not dismiss him outright—even when he suspects Theo is plotting against him. In the inevitable show down between the two, Xan loses himself. Although it is not immediately apparent, I feel that Xan has hesitation about ending their relationship, not simply by happenstance, but because there is some tiny, fractional, minuscule, infinitesimal part that wants to feel love and a true connection or bond with another human. Perhaps Xan knows that if Theo is gone, then so is his last remaining piece of humanity? This trope of evil incarnate is not necessarily new, but it is so very believable for this character. Darth Vader had trouble killing Luke even at the behest of his boss, the Emperor.
The somber mood pervading this story, the awful lingering question of “What’s the point of anything anymore?” is well developed by PD James. How quickly would society devolve into chaos and struggle to hold order when the future is taken from it? This story is a strong exploration into the meaning of life. So much of living seems to be purposed on propagation, people’s ability to leave something behind of themselves to share with the world. And yet, intermixed with this is mankind’s self-awareness. Beyond reproduction–what then? Perhaps that is the back on which society is born—the building block of morals and values? Of mutual respect and dignity.
Theo’s redemption from abject callousness begins with the Five Fishes. This small group of miscreants has formed as a counterpoint to Xan’s puppet council of advisors. The group protests the apathy in which society is fading away. The lack of dignity in it all. They seem to cry out, that there is a point to life beyond the mere continuation of the species, beyond satisfaction of man’s most base animalistic needs. Being a direct relation to Xan, the group seeks Theo’s intercession—a last plea for change before things need to resort to violence. Theo is still floundering in his pointless existence and not particularly motivated to help them, so they urge him to see things as they really are. Here we learn that, unsurprisingly, Xan is not really meeting all society’s needs as well as he could. People are baptizing pets and treating dolls with unnatural attachment. The solution to crime, removing all troublemakers to an island to fend for themselves, may not be so straightforward a solution as it seems. And of course the Quietus, Theo is finally turned to the rebel cause, when he realizes that these dignified suicides are not so dignified or voluntary as he was led to believe when he was employed by Xan.
The second part of the book becomes a sort of “Lord of the Rings” quest, when Theo wholly throws his lot in with the Five Fishes and they must race against time to fulfill their destiny. They scramble through the wilder parts of the world and attempt to do this one thing that might change everything, if only they can be left alone long enough to let it happen. It’s not so difficult to suspect what this might be, or where this story will end up. Yet, what is heartfelt is the sacrifices that the characters must make to accomplish their goal. Even more important is Theo’s discovery that he can actually feel real empathy and genuine love. The protagonist’s progression from his apathetic beginnings, devolution and surrender into ultimate detachment until at last he finds redemption for his soul and a purpose for all the buried pain is heartfelt. This is the real story. The imperfection of love and life and society, and how these pieces do not fit so cleanly together. In the end, Xan’s more rational, more calculated and more reasonable stratagems cannot win. Theo’s character is well-crafted and perhaps masterfully developed in his faults, and faltering growth.
This book is the sort of thing that moves along at a decent enough pace. I’m not familiar with PD James’ other works, but I suspect this one differs from her more “thriller” type background. Initially, Theo’s career as an Oxford professor and his strange relationships in this dystopian future are stuffy and not overly interesting. That said, the setting is intriguing enough to peak your interest from the outset and the story finds its legs as it progresses along. However, the deeper themes and questions and evolving relationships are such that you don’t get a sense of what’s happened until you’ve finished reading. Then you set the book down and later it hits you. Wow.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).