Dark, dystopian, and deeply flawed. And yet….
Author John Brunner’s late 20th century England is a mess: the economy is collapsing, environmental degradation is rampant, the government is corrupt, religious fundamentalists are taking over, and a renegade general is advocating xenophobia and racism at home and nuclear war abroad. Things in the U.S. are similar, minus the general. Meanwhile, Japan and continental Europe are doing fine, or better.
Peter Levin is a freelance reporter. Few newspapers will buy his work and they are in danger of closing. Claudia Morris is an American sociologist. She made her name with a provocative book, but she now thinks she might have gotten her thesis wrong, and has come to England on sabbatical to do research and write a new book. She and Levin had met previously, and they meet up again.
Meanwhile, a baker’s dozen of just past puberty children scattered across the British Isles and in Italy have discovered that they have the power to control the people around them, and they’re wielding that power to get everything they want, including the deaths of those who threaten them.
And here’s where the first flaw shows up. Brunner tells the story of all but one of the children while Levin and Morris meet. Levin fumbles around trying to find paying work while she struggles to keep the funding for her studies coming. There’s little evidence of a connection between the Levin/Morris story line and those of the children for well over half of the book. A science fiction reader will trust the author to eventually bring parallel story lines together, and Brunner eventually does, but even then, the children seem to be of secondary interest Levin and Morris. The early portions of the book are such a disjointed mess that it’s often tempting to put the book down.
Other flaws: Written in the mid-1980s, the book seems to have been created in haste for the domestic British market, and so was not “translated” into American English for this publication. (My copy of Children is the first of three books collected into one hardback.) For someone like me who’s worked with Britons, this isn’t much of a problem, but for others, even the non-slang terms will cause American readers to stumble.
Speaking of slang, Brunner chose to create a whole new set of slang and swear words for his characters. It turns out that he did not make up the words he chose, they were terms from previous eras, some quite obscene in their original usage. This wouldn’t be much of a problem except that Levin, the children, and even the American Dr. Morris, who, by the way, is also a Jewish lesbian, swear like sailors. It’s annoying and unnecessary.
As a writer, I notice dialogue tags. Writers today are taught to use very few: said, asked, thought, maybe one or two others. Brunner, however, resorts to what are called “Tom Swifties,” after the Tom Swift adventure novels, in which each dialogue tag is overdone and accompanied by an adverb to overdo them even more. Brunner’s characters shout angrily, exclaim excitedly, growl menacingly, and so on. It’s annoying tremendously.
And yet, for all this, I kept reading. The story picks up once Levin and Morris hear about the kids. With the help of Levin’s estranged teenage daughter, who comes to live with him after her mother is killed by a plane crash in her neighborhood, they start to investigate the children. One of the children brings all but two of the others to live with him. He kills the Italian boy because he’s a potential rival. The other child (spoiler alert) is Levin’s daughter, and she’s in cahoots with the rest of them.
Levin and Morris suspect that these children were all created via artificial insemination (referred to by the British slang term “artinsem”) with sperm from a single donor, so they try to find him. It turns out (more spoilers) that Levin, who was also a sperm donor as a young man, is that man, something that’s only revealed at the end of the book, when the children show him their amoral, power-mad nature and ultimate plans to take over the world, by among other things, making Levin father more of them, including with Morris.
In true dystopian fashion, the bad guys (the kids) win, and the person we thought was the good guy (Levin) is in fact at fault for the whole mess.
It’s a tribute to Brunner’s skill as a writer that he was able to keep me interested in such a flawed work all the way to the end, but in the end the flaws drive the rating down, although to a higher score than I first thought I would give it.