I decided to read this book after scanning a couple of reviews of its recent movie adaptation. They were both quite adamant that the book was wonderful, interesting, and very insightful. They were also equally adamant that the movie was a heavy-handed political hack that didn't simply miss the main point of the book, but actually subverted and attempted to undermine it.
The premise of the book is extremely interesting. It is about two decades into the 21st century, and no children have been born in the past 20 years. In the late 1900's, women stop becoming pregnant. Midwives are the first to notice it, as they see no appointments being made for 6 months in advance. When it becomes clear that this is a world-wide phenomenon, huge social upheaval follows. England (the book's setting) falls under a dictatorship that guarantees people security and entertainment as society winds down, followed by easy suicide for those who wish it.
James does a great job of exploring what might happen in such a situation. The separation of sex from procreation, a cultural trend strong in the West for at least 40 years, is now taken to its extreme as procreation no longer happens. Sex becomes more mechanical, frantically pursued, yet ultimately unsatisfying even at a physical level. In the hopes that a medical cure for infertility will be found, the government runs pornography shops to try to keep up interest in sex as the population ages.
Industry winds down as the energy and interest of the young fade into apathy and pursuit of comfort. Mass suicides are encouraged in order to get rid of the old and weak. Women desperately seek child-substitutes in ultra-realistic baby dolls. Celebration of the birth of kittens and puppies become major family events. An old Anglican priest starts performing baptisms on household pets.
These explorations were enough to keep me engaged throughout the book. Which was fortunate, since I really had a hard time relating to the characters. It may be that I was not a careful enough reader. Or, perhaps there is a cultural divide involved in trying to understand English emotional reactions. I am quite willing to concede either of these points, but it may be that James simply did not create very realistic characters in this novel. Theo, the protagonist, has an emotional life completely alien to me. The political rebellion involving five activists was described in a way that seemed very simple and naive. The interpersonal interactions of the government leaders, along with the romance at the end of the book, just did not work. They seemed contrived and unconvincing.
All this said, I would still strongly recommend the book. Its unique, fascinating premise and explored in a variety of ways that casts light on several current trends.