Picks and Pans Review: The Children of Men

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by P.D. James

The year: 2021. The place: Britain. The situation: There are no potent men or fertile women in the world. The last baby was born 25 years previously, and the human race is dying out; no one knows why.

In 11 previous outings, James has offered up some of the century's most finely crafted mystery tales. This time the only mystery is why the author didn't call in her doughty hero, poet-policeman Adam Dalgliesh, to punish the guilty, empathize with the innocent and set things right.

Instead, for her first foray into future fiction, James keenly observes the unraveling of humankind through the eyes of an embittered Oxford historian, Theodore Faron. What Theo sees is appalling. For a quickly aging population, there are mass suicides dubbed the Quietus and encouraged by Xan, the dictatorial leader of England. Frustrated by their inability to procreate and a future in which they will be left chillingly alone, the last generation born, called the Omegas, turn to violence and pornography. As England—and the world—limps toward destruction, Theo falls in with a small band of dissidents and discovers that one of them, Julian, is pregnant. The authorities want to bend Julian's offspring to their own purposes. On the run (toward a predictable denouement), the principals muse on the nature of love, sex, God and earthly power.

The author's message, though, is as veiled as her characters' motivations. Is the novel a meditation on population control, on AIDS, a sermon on Christian love or a diatribe against sexual promiscuity? Despite her considerable gifts, in Children of Men James may have thrown the babies out and left us with the bathwater. (Knopf, $22)

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