05 April, 2010

Human frailty: 'Blindness' and 'The Children of Men'

A dystopia is a powerful world for an author to evoke. It is made all the more potent when created through a single permutation in normality, revealing how fragile our hold on security has been made by 'progress'. P.D. James' Children of Men and Jose Saramago's Blindness both explore a world wracked by a single failing that - slowly or quickly - is the undoing of mankind.

(Coincidentally, both books were made into movies within two years of each other, both starring Julianne Moore.)

In P.D. James' The Children of Men, humankind has lost the ability to reproduce. Rather than presenting a post-apocalytpic world, James' is mid-apocalyptic: humanity is dying, not suddenly through a cataclysmic attack, but patiently, as the population inexorably ages.

Hers is a fascinating concept. Just what would we do if the human race became infertile? What would be the first industries and services to suffer? The social implications are so forseeable and worthy of scrutiny that the outcomes of such an event could be explored systematically, in a future-doco format.

James instead creates a protagonist, Theo Farron, upon whom to hinge the plot. His centrality to events past - his childhood with Britain's ruler - and present - a splinter group's choice to ask him to help them - is unfeasible and stalls the book to an extent. James concerns herself solely with the situation in England (and a small portion of that country at that). The book offers no explanation for the infertility, and the fact that births simply stopped in 1995 is conceptually problematic.

Those born in 1995 - all 25 years old at the time of the book's setting - are known as Omegas, and bear an uncanny resemblance to today's Gen Ys. They are described as 'indulged ... arrogant ... without animation or energy'. The similarity can only be inadvertent since the book was written in 1992. It's an intriguing device, imbuing this unprecedented consciousness into the last-born, but again relies on society functioning a little more neatly and uniformly than it does.

The protagonist Theo is a professor at Oxford, and cousin to the Warden of England, a benevolent dictator who rules the country assisted by a council of four. James' choice of governance warrants further consideration. What would happen to our governments if our race were not to see out the century? The cynical thought occurs that we're already ruled like a nation with noone under 25 and 90% of the population over 50. But would parliament be disbanded? Would one person emerge to take on responsibility for keeping order, keeping the electricity running, finding something for the schoolteachers, childcare workers and children's retailers to do?

Theo's world is a strange one, straddling two genres: it is neither a futuristic rendering from sci-fi, nor a barely recognisable, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Many scenes feature derelict buildings and nature overrunning man-made structures - with fewer people this world has finally solved the housing crisis - alongside normality as Theo drives to work and shop.

The story was significantly altered for the movie verson (Theo Farron is no Clive Owen!), but the filmed version provoked a similar ambivalence of criticism, with many respecting the premise but questioning the execution.

Blindess explores a different calamity: an epidemic of non-seeing, which rapidly reduces the world to barbarism and criminality. Again, it's a singular change, yet its ramifications are feasibly encompassing and horrific. The blindess is contagious, and the first couple of hundred people afflicted are quarantined. Very quickly, though, they must fend entirely for themselves. Just as quickly, their quarantine station descends into the most basic of barbarism.

The descent is both quick and total. Saramago spares no attention to detail of the excrement, the despair, the violence, and the lust, of both the requited and forced kind. The book featured scenes I found difficult to read; from discussions with others who've read it I think most will find something hard to get through, but what it is depends on your personal sensitivity.

What I found difficult was the notion that we would necessarily descend to rape and pillage, if 200 random humans were left alone in desparate circumstances. The quarantine station Saramago creates serves as a microcosm; when the sequestered get out, they realise the quarantine was a fruitless ordeal, since the plague of blindness has spread universally. The group in quarantine, therefore, serve Saramago's literary licence, as they must display what is worst - and in the case of one or two characters - what is best in us.

Saramago's writing style is peculiar - he believes in long paragraphs, with no visual distinction between dialogue and prose. I haven't read other books of his to know if this is his standard, but in this book it's effective in disorienting the reader, and bringing them closer to an empathy with these characters who have also lost their orientation.

It's astonishing to consider how fundamentally that one change would alter existence. How would we eat if noone could distinguish between the packets? Who would manage our utilities if noone could see the dials? How would you find your way home if you were out when the blindness struck? Saramago describes the blindness as a white world, reinforcing the point that everything we have built is still there - and illuminated, if the people could only see.


  1. Two of my favourite things, food and books! Great blog =)

  2. Thanks Emmet! I love the premise of your blog - great way to keep yourself occupied :)