Prophecy

The best science fiction is, of course, neither about science nor is it completely fictional. And though it is frequently set in the far future or the remote past, it is always about the present moment. Indeed, I think sci-fi really succeeds to the extent that it can project the present moment into the near future, and fails to the extent that it depends on special effects and scientific wizardry. Mere technology, as a succession of the “wow!” and the “gee whiz” is ultimately boring, unless we can connect it to the situation of man, both the temporal and eternal.

The is another kind of literature like this: it is the literature of the prophets. Prophecy is not so much a matter of foretelling the future as of foretelling the present. That is, the prophet grasps what is real in his society, and really defective, and shows what must be the results. Frequently, he shows these results as the judgment of God upon his society, and so it is. But it is also the judgment of men; if we persist in our ways, then we must go our way, wherever it leads, and it is pointless to blame the end on God. We may end up shouting (as we always do), “God, why did you let this happen?” when really the fault is in ourselves and not in God. We want to be free—even free from God—and we want God to prevent the consequences of our freedom. God does prevent these consequences, ultimately; he takes upon himself the fault that belongs to us. And in the end, as Julian of Norwich was told by the angel, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” But in this, the penultimate world, things will not always be well. And it is the job of the Prophet to tell us just how bad things can be. The Prophet is both timely and eternal. Isaiah was a court official and a practical reformer involved with the day-to-day affairs of the Northern Kingdom. And Jeremiah was speaking mainly about Judean foreign policy. But through the temporal, they grasped the eternal, and in examining the actions of the sons of men, they were able to see—albeit dimly—the coming of the Son of Man. But their prophecies were not confined to the distant future only; Jeremiah could see the destruction that was at hand, as well as the restoration that was to come.

In foretelling the present, the prophet does not “predict”; rather, he shows us the way we must go if we do not change our ways. He shows a present moment, only slightly exaggerated, projected to the near moment. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Dicken's A Christmas Carol, the future is not a given, but a thing in our control; to reform our present is to change our future. All of which brings me to the movie Children of Men, based on the novel by P. D. James.

James asks the question, “what would the world be like if we had no future?” And of course, having no future means having no children. This is the world in the “distant” future of 2027. There has not been a child born since 2009, and the last child born, “baby” Diego, has just been murdered by an autograph seeker. The scenario here is not so freakish as it might appear. In fact, birth rates are already well below replacement rates across must cultures and nations. So this is only a small exaggeration, a slight projection into the future (See The Birth Dearth). The major difference is that now we choose not to have children; in James's future, we cannot have children.

How does the world fare without a future? Not very well. Civilizations and nations have collapsed into chaos, and “Britain alone soldiers On,” as public service announcements constantly remind the British public. The problem is, England is “soldiering on” as a Fascistic “homeland security” state, with heavily armed policeman and soldiers on every corner. Still, there is terrorism in the streets. The chaos in the rest of the world has meant the mass movement of populations, to which England has responded by closing its borders and making immigration illegal.

The novel has been adapted to the screen by Alfonso Cuarón, who left the lucrative Harry Potter franchise (his last movie was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) to make this film. In this childless world, we first meet Theo Faron (Clive Owens), an erstwhile political activist, but now a cowering civil servant. He is kidnapped by his former girlfriend, Julian (Julianne Moore) who is now the leader of the “Fishes,” an underground and occasionally terrorist group working to protect immigrants. They have discovered a pregnant woman, the first in 18 years, named Kee (key?), an illegal immigrant from the Fiji Islands, played admirably by Clare-Hope Ashitey (isn't it ironic that the “key” is played by a woman named “Clear Hope”?) Julian is given the task of smuggling Kee out of England to a shadowy group called “The Human Project,” a group that may be located in the Azores but certainly operates by sea. This is a difficult enough task in a police state on the verge of collapse, but there are even more complications. Julian is murdered by one of her own lieutenants, who wants the baby as a “flag” to rally a rebellion. As a result, the people who are supposed to be helping Theo are now hunting him. Nor is his problem made any easier when he must become a midwife and deliver a baby in the midst of a “refugee camp” that is really an urban dystopia of filth and violence. Finally, he must guide Kee and the baby across an battlefield in the middle of an armed rebellion.

Cuarón shoots the film in long takes, with very few cuts, the camera following the action in a way that draws the audience into it. This is especially true in a long scene shot inside a car as it is being besieged by a mob of bandits, which gives a sense of claustrophobia and danger not seen since Das Boot. The battle scenes are as good as anything since Saving Private Ryan, and maybe better. But much of the real action takes place in the background, in Cuarón's depiction of the London of the near future. It is a gray and shabby place. After all, why repair the roads, or anything else, if you are the last generation? It is a world where Quietus, a suicide pill, is openly marketed with slick TV ads; Why not? If there is no tomorrow, why should there be a today?

We are not told the cause of the universal infertility, nor are we told the nature or the purpose of The Human Project; the viewer is free to speculate on these and to read into them what he will. But we are told of the connection between potency and civilization. And what we are told in the film contradicts everything we are told everywhere else. For in current ideology, a crash in population would be a boon to mankind and to the environment. And on this question, the film stands or falls. Are James and Cuarón engaging in prophecy or fantasy? Are they showing us where we are and where we're headed, or are the leading us astray? The viewer must decide, but history is on the side of James. Population declines are typically the prelude to chaos. When Rome stopped having any interest in children, her population slowly crashed and she could no longer defend her borders; she was given over to the barbarian hoards. Often, a rapid crash presents us with a choice of a slave society or a more egalitarian one. This is because the shortage of men causes the price of labor to skyrocket, and labor must either be suppressed or liberated. This was the choice after the Black Death in the 14th century. The rulers tried to suppress the serfs and the peasantry (e.g., The Statute of Laborers in 1348), but their rights were too well-established for this to work, and the final suppression of the workers would not take place for another two centuries.

First Things criticized the movie for being insufficiently Christian; as usual, it is First Things that misses both the point of the movie and the point of Christianity. The lack of physical potency leads to a lack of intellectual vigor, including the impotency of writing for First Things. For indeed, civilization is ordered around children; we give them order and so order our own lives; everything we give them, we receive from them. All of Christianity revolves around a single birth, and a child who must, as in the film, flee the oppressor for fear of his life. In the film, Britain places its hope in military order, while its opponents call for armed rebellion. But it is birth that is the real rebellion, the real hope for the future. And our future depends on a single birth—on every single birth—and the hope offered to every single child.

6 comments:

P.M.Lawrence Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 12:21:00 AM CDT  

'Mere technology, as a succession of the “wow!” and the “gee whiz” is ultimately boring, unless we can connect it to the situation of man, both the temporal and eternal'.

With all due respect, it depends on who you are, on what type of person you are. The media is infested with "people persons", which led to the "Tomorrow's World Syndrome" for science and technology shows (named after a British one). In that, the staff literally could not see that their niche wanted that, and changed the focus to "what these things will mean for how we live" - and lost their niche audience. It is the mindset that, given the job of making a documentary for stamp collectors, will make a documentary about stamp collectors instead of about stamps. Some more examples...

A few months ago I tried to catch an episode of the Australian "New Inventors" that promised to show how a new universal joint worked. It only showed what it did, not how it did it - and it devoted a third of its time to showing the panellists interacting and putting the episode together, too. They literally thought that what the universal joint did for people was "how it worked".

As a child I was in a school where a new organ was being installed. The staff asked if there were any questions, so I asked how it worked. They then wasted ten minutes of everybody's time telling me how the organist played it.

I once saw a one man show based on Kipling's life. It had the Kipling character explain that the "tedious" two pages of technical detail about a ship that he put into The Devil and the Deep Sea was put in as irony. The poor thing of a playwright literally could not see that passage as anything but tedious in its own right, and had to explain it to his own satisfaction in his own terms. Yet a few years earlier I had read it myself and found it rivetting.

So, people are different. To reach and keep a wider audience you need the human interactions - but to a certain sort of person, a task oriented one rather than a people person, the personal interactions only gain their meaning because some real thing is happening. We still need the interactions, but they merely add range and depth; on their own, they weigh things down, for my sort of person. Forget the technical and you lose the essence, for my sort.

B. Y. Clark Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:10:00 AM CDT  

I understand the value of every life... but our population is expanding from births (as well as immigration). Sweden and Iceland might have negative population growth, but that is not a problem here.

John Médaille Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:40:00 AM CDT  

@ B. Y. Clark: This is not a matter of debate, but of statistics. Birth rates are way below population replacement rates, and this is true world-wide. In today's New York Times, there is an article about Singapore, which is offering bounties for having more than two children because the birth rate is far below replacement rates. They are even offering classes on Western-style dating to encourage early marriage and child-bearing.

The Crises is the population crises, bigger even than the environmental crises. Falling populations disrupt all social systems and all social relations. There are certainly not enough children to pay my Social Security obligations, a fact that will lead to inter-generational warfare.

Lotar Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 2:45:00 PM CDT  

B Y Clark,

The problem is that a population can (and usually does) continue to increase for years after demographic decline has already begun. The USA has been in demographic decline since the 70s, but our population increases do to births and immigration because of this lag.

The generation that is now dying off is of the Depression era, while the generation that is doing the reproducing is the children of the Boomers. While reproducing generation is only about 80% the size of the Boomer generation, it is still 2-3 times larger than the dying generation. Population will almost innevitably decline eventually.

Leo Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 12:46:00 AM CDT  

Population declines are typically the prelude to chaos. When Rome stopped having any interest in children, her population slowly crashed and she could no longer defend her borders; she was given over to the barbarian hoards. Often, a rapid crash presents us with a choice of a slave society or a more egalitarian one. This is because the shortage of men causes the price of labor to skyrocket, and labor must either be suppressed or liberated. This was the choice after the Black Death in the 14th century. The rulers tried to suppress the serfs and the peasantry (e.g., The Statute of Laborers in 1348), but their rights were too well-established for this to work, and the final suppression of the workers would not take place for another two centuries.

I think Belloc's view a little more plausible concerning Rome, though it could just be my ignorance of history. But the point is valid, things are looking dark for society.

For indeed, civilization is ordered around children; we give them order and so order our own lives; everything we give them, we receive from them. All of Christianity revolves around a single birth, and a child who must, as in the film, flee the oppressor for fear of his life.

Our children inherit the world that we build.
In the old days, after the parents had worked their share of days and children were grown, the children had the responsibility for taking care of the parent. Nowadays we note that the parent is abandoned to strangers in a nursing home because the children are off becoming "successful", that is until they end up there too. IT is also that many social functions depend on children, and when that order is disrupted, chaos inevitably results, because each generation discards the last one, and what it built, and seeks to forge a new society built solely on its own labour, trashing the wisdom of the last age as superstition and ignorance.

But it is birth that is the real rebellion, the real hope for the future. And our future depends on a single birth—on every single birth—and the hope offered to every single child.

Written like a true Chestertonian, that's the way Chesterton would have put it were he to see these dark days.

I understand the value of every life... but our population is expanding from births


Population will almost innevitably decline eventually.

Speculatively so, but that is for God to decide, He has the power over life and death, and to assume that for ourselves is a usurpation. Because I happen to believe that there is a creator, because we can create. And that all that is is created, and so the creator knows what He's doing with His own creation. And so the prevention or destruction of life is a usurpation of that right, and so I believe it a moral wrong, not merely for the intrinsic moral wrong in itself, being contrary to the natural and moral law, because it is an offense to the rights of the author of life.
Another side note, there are lots of areas with little population, some states have very low populations, the problem is, in my opinion, a problem of concentration, not of population, areas of Candada and the Mid west, for example, are not overly crowded. It's places like LA and NYC that have big problems with large populations. There are some cities, such as the above mentioned, that have populations which exceed the number of persons in entire states, take mine for example, NYC's population exceeds the population of my native state, being less than 5,000,000.

Christopher Sarsfield,  Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 10:59:00 AM CDT  

Infertility is a growing problem in the world and is only going to get worse. Sperm counts in Europe are down 50%, to cite one example. We are polluting our environment with estrogen and estrogen mimicking compounds. This is not only a problem for humans, but wildlife are also feeling the effects. Male fish are becoming female because of the chemical pollutants in many rivers in the US. Where are the environmentalists on this issue? Advocating the the shipment of more birth control to ensure the pollution of the rest of the Earth. Over population is not the problem, but over consumption could be.

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