I first read P. D. James’ superb 1992 novel The Children of Men in 2006 in anticipation of the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s cinematic adaptation of the book. I found the novel to be superb—an imaginative extrapolation on the anti-life, superficial, statist, and faithless trajectory Western culture seems to have been embracing. The movie, on the other hand, is a dismal and pedestrian attack on the policies of George W. Bush. James, reportedly, was pleased with the film. I wasn’t.
The premise of the book begins with a kind of thought experiment: what would happen if homo sapiens—due to disease, contamination, or some other unforeseen disaster—became unable to procreate? James illustrates this through the image of sperm counts failing in all men, surely a wry commentary on the gender wars (though I am not certain if James meant this to please or offend feminists). Nevertheless, James considers what could happen if humanity, as a species, slowly watched itself becoming extinct. It is a fascinating meditation.
One scene of the book more than any other has fastened itself in my imagination through the six years since I first read it: women pushing their prams down city sidewalks while neighbors stop them in order to see their “babies.” Only, they’re not babies. They’re dolls. Their “mothers” fuss over them, over their clothes, over their own simulacraic motherhoods. The image is both endearing and disturbing.
I think 2012 is, in its own way, likewise a picture of a generally invisible sterility. I live in Michigan where we experienced a surreal stretch of temperatures in the eighties last March. Throughout the State, cherries, apples, pears and other fruit trees burst into early blossom—only to have their flowers killed by frost in late April. Now the trees, though full of green and otherwise healthy, are bare of fruit. I can only imagine the devastation to the orchard industry. All those trees. No apples.
I am a novice beekeeper. My lone colony swarmed the weekend of that frost—what I thought to be a sign of a forthcoming honey boon. I captured the swarm on my neighbor’s lawn. The bees were confused by the weather, as the master beekeepers tell me, and mine forgot (as happened all over the state) to leave behind a queen when they swarmed. Without a queen, a colony is as good as dead. The bees kept busy—for a couple months—giving the impression of vitality and fecundity. But, eventually, the community collapsed. Robber bees invaded, leaving only a small amount of honey for me to harvest. I had been planning on enough to keep my family of eleven in honey for a year. I ended up with barely enough for a week.
This past weekend I was returning from an academic conference in Iowa, a state, like too many others, suffering from extended drought. I drove for two hours in one of the hardest rains I have seen in a good while, my Ford Ranger’s windshield wipers barely able to keep pace with the constant downpour. The rain fell on miles and miles of short, brown corn stalks, another haunting image of sterility masking as fertility.
I don’t know what all of this means. A poet by temperament, the temptation is for me to interpret this as a cosmic commentary on the sterility of Western (and especially American) culture, a culture that worries more about style than substance, rights than what is right, goods than the Good, artifice than art, pleasure than principle. And I won’t even touch on politics. I confess that there still lives in me a hint of Percy Bysshe Shelly’s prayer in “Ode to the West Wind” that something, in my vocation as a poet, might “be through my lips to unawakened earth, the trumpet of a prophecy.”
But, as I said, this is a temptation, though not one I am willing to take up. However, the image of that brown corn in that hard rain is not likely to leave my imagination any time soon, like that similarly disturbing picture of the doll in the baby carriage.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit MI.