Imagine a world where the human race can no longer reproduce itself due to a virus, a likely product of bioterrorism, that attacks a woman’s brain at the moment of conception, killing her within days. This is the premise of Jane Rogers’s recent novel The Testament of Jesse Lamb. In P.D. James’s The Children of Men (1992), an equally mysterious virus renders all sperm on Earth, frozen and otherwise, sterile. In The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, humanity’s reproductive ability has been so compromised by nuclear disasters, chemical warfare, industrial toxins, and contaminated food supplies that the few women left with the potential to breed are forced by the state to devote themselves entirely to producing offspring.
The desolation of a world without children, gruesomely depicted in these novels, would arise not so much from the absence of the children themselves, though surely this would have its downsides, but to the acute, ever-present awareness that life is distinctly pointless when all human prospects are nullified. Of course, a “big picture” thinker might agree with the statistical paleontologist in James’s novel that “of the four billion life forms which have existed on this planet, three billion, nine hundred and sixty million are now extinct… in the light of these mass extinctions it really does seem unreasonable to suppose that Homo sapiens should be exempt.” Still, for most of us, the idea that we’re all contributing some small measure, good or bad, to the planet’s future is a psychological boon to existence.
Patrimony — the etymology of the word is particularly apt — lies at the heart of these novels.