Children of Men/Little, Big

September 19th, 2008 by Editor B

It should be noted: These are not book reviews. I think of them more as reading notes.

Title: The Children of Men
Author: PD James
Published: 1992

Some books I know I’m going to enjoy right away, from the very first sentence:

Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years two months and twelve days.

And I did enjoy it. The central conceit of the novel, that people just stop being born one day, is never really explored or explained. Instead we’re given a view of what such a world might be like after twenty-five years later.

It’s rather bleak. The narrator/protagonist is despicable, but articulate. The British attitude toward the world and toward life itself is flayed. I found it very engaging.

Curiously enough, I wasn’t sure of the author’s gender as I read this. I often gazed at the photo of PD James on the back cover but could not determine male or female. As I read on, I came to relish this indeterminacy and actively avoided figuring it out until I finished the book. I think notions of gender inform so many of our perceptions on a subconscious level, so this was an interesting exercise.

Here’s a picture of Persephone making a grab for the book, which I thought was kind of a cool image:

Children of Men

Apparently this book was made into a movie. Apparently the movie is quite good. Apparently it’s only loosely based on the book, with major differences between the two. Apparently you can’t talk about the book without also at least mentioning the movie. Apparently I haven’t seen it.

Title: Little, Big
Author: John Crowley
Published: 1981

I first read this book when I was traveling. I picked it up in Helsinki in 2001 and continued reading it as I traveled through London and Scotland. Odd, considering it’s an American fairy tale. Yes, that’s right, it’s a modern American fairy tale. Fairies always seem very Old World to me. I’m impressed — dazzled — that Crowley was able to pull this off so convincingly.

This story is so big and rambling that I won’t even try to describe it. But I do have a few observations.

This is a serious adult book. There is a persistent idea that fantasy is kid stuff. Ain’t necessarily so, and Crowley proves it. In fact, I’d venture to say that this story is distinctly kid-unfriendly. Not that it’s full of sex and gore (it’s not) but rather that its themes of loss and love seem particularly mature.

How can we take the idea of fairies seriously? Crowley comes at that question from many angles. Here’s one approach that I found particularly compelling.

He consulted Darwin, and the glimmer of a hypothesis began to be seen as though far off but coming closer.

In the primeval forests, by some unimaginable eon-long struggle, the race of Man separated itself from its near cousins the hairy apes. It appeared that there had been more than one attempt to so differentiate a Man, and that all of them had failed, leaving no trace behind except for the odd anomalous bone. Dead ends. Man alone had learned speech — fire — tool-making, and so was the only sapient to survive.

Or was he?

Suppose a branch of our old family tree — a branch that seemed doomed to wither — had in fact not died out but survived, survived by learning arts just as new to the world but utterly different from the tool-making and fire-building of its grosser cousins, us. Suppose that instead they had learned concealment, smallification, disappearance, and some way to blind the eyes of beholders.

Suppose they had learned to leave no trace; no barrow, flint, glyph; no bone, no tooth…

He thought of the thousands of years — hundreds of thousands — it had taken men to learn what they knew, the arts they had invented out of absolute dark animal ignorance; how they had come to cast pots, amazing thing, whose clumsy shards we find now amid fires cold a millennium and the gnawed bones of prey and neighbors. This other race, supposing it existed, supposing data proving its existence could be found, must have spent those same millennia perfecting its own arts. There was the story Grandy told, that in Britain the Little People were those original inhabitants driven to littleness and secret wiles by invaders who carried iron weapons — thus their ancient fear and avoidance of iron. Maybe so! As (he turned Darwin’s dense and cautious pages) turtles grow shells, zebras paint themselves in stripes; as men, like babies, grasped and gabbled, these others retreated into learned crafts of undiscoverability and track-covering until the race that planted, made, built, hunted with weapons no longer noticed their presence in our very midst — except for the discountable tales of goodwives who left dishes of milk on the sill for them, or the drunkard or the madman from whom they could not or chose not to hide.

After transcribing this passage, it occurs to me that I’ve selected the one portion of the book that ventures into science fiction territory. I should probably note that most of the book does not follow this tack. But that’s the nature of this tale. It’s huge, and hugely allusive, with plenty of hints, plenty of speculations and contradictory directions. There’s a lot of stuff between these lines.

I just finished re-reading it, aloud for Xy’s benefit. Though Xy found it frustratingly oblique, this remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Here’s another bit of wisdom plucked from these pages, which would make a good motto for our family, even though we’re nowhere near as big a family as the Drinkwaters:

The things that make us happy make us wise.

3 Responses to “Children of Men/Little, Big”

  1. mike Says:

    Children of Men, the movie, is breathtaking, and grim as hell. Viv and I crisscrossed with DVDs as gifts for one another of the film last Xmas. Email me your addy and I will ship one out tonight.

  2. Mark Folse Says:

    I highly recommend Crowley’s Engine Summer. Closer to SF in a strange land somewhere between Utopia and Distopia. The main library has it or you can borrow mine.

  3. Frank Schiavo Says:

    Little, Big is one of my favorite novels of all time. So many times and in so many places I have picked it up and found it wonderous and new. It is one of those books I just like to pick up and hand out to folks when I can. It keeps them from borrowing and not returning mine. LoL.

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