REGULAR readers of P.D. James be advised: Her latest work, "The Children of Men," is no detective novel.
At first glance, it appears to be science fiction; but the technology of 2021 doesn't seem very different from today's. It might be one of those "1984"-type political allegories; but the tyrant is relatively benign and not nearly so ubiquitous as George Orwell's.
It is an allegory - a powerfully written, philosophical, slightly depressing, yet hopeful one that leaves you pondering long after the final page has been turned.
The plot: Theodore Faron, a 50-year-old Oxford professor, decides to keep a diary. He informs readers that not a single human child has been born on Earth since October 1995 because of an inexplicable male sterility.
The reader soon sees that a world without children is a world without hope. After an initial wave of mass suicides and mass hysteria, and after it has become clear that modern medicine is not going to find either the cause or the cure for this worst-of-all plagues, people have more or less settled down to wait out the last years of humankind.
In Britain, Oxford University has been reduced to a series of adult education courses. Most hard-labor and service jobs are done by Sojourners, a group of immigrant laborers who are deported at the end of their effective working lives. Criminals, even petty thieves, are immediately exiled to a penal colony on the Isle of Man. The elderly are encouraged to commit suicide in groups, with big state bonuses to surviving relatives.
The hopelessness has bred an apathy to the workings of democratic government. Britain is now ruled by a council of five persons headed by Warden of Britain Xan Lyppiatt. Faron is the warden's cousin - the two boys spent their adolescent summers together - and was a council adviser until he became disillusioned and quit.
Faron may not be Adam Dalgliesh, James's detective hero in previous books, but he's a kindred spirit. Divorced following the tragic death of his toddler daughter, he has mentally walled himself off from others. He goes through the motions of his daily existence, often questioning why he is doing what he is doing, held in place by inertia.
Then a young woman, Julian, introduces Faron to a motley group of five dissidents who help him discover that England's benevolent dictatorship isn't quite as benevolent as it seems. As Part 1 - "Omega" - ends, Faron finds himself increasingly entwined with the group; he realizes that he is falling in love with Julian and that he is treading on politically dangerous ground from which there may be no return.
In Part 2 - "Alpha" - the action suddenly and unexpectedly accelerates into a thriller that is increasingly difficult to put down.
This book is primarily about hope, symbolized by children. Their absence and the absence of hope are the same. The sterility of men represents the sterility of many aspects of modern life.
As in all her writings, James is ambivalent, even agnostic, about religion as she understands it. Faron still attends church even though he does not believe in God. While we meet religious charlatans and deviants, others - especially Julian - are committed Christians acting according to their best sense of the Gospel. The Biblically literate will find many New Testament parallels.
Both in her professional and personal life, James has seen a good deal of unpleasantness, and she doesn't spare the reader.
The going gets grim on occasion, yet the craftsmanship of James's writing and the depth of the characterizations move the reader through it.
If there is any flaw in the book, it may be in the abrupt switches back and forth between Faron's first-person diary entries and a third-person narrative.
While it's too early to say what the shelf life of James's mysteries will be (the signs are favorable), this novel has the potential to become a classic.