Fiction Reviews

The Second Sleep

(2019) Robert Harris, Hutchinson, £20, hrdbk, 327pp, ISBN 978-1-786-33137-3


It is nominally 1468 – the year of our risen Lord – and a young priest, called Christopher Fairfax, has been sent by his Bishop, from Exeter Cathedral alone, across Wessex in southwest England, to bury a pastor in the lonely Exmoor village of Addicot St George.  However we, the reader, soon learn (page 2) that there are parakeets in the countryside: this is not 1468AD, this is sometime in the future. (Parakeets are not native to Europe and were first noticed in the wild in Britain in the nineteenth century.)   Yet almost everything indicates it is medieval times: the priest is on horseback; there are no well-maintained roads; homes have thatched roofs and are lit by candles…

After a journey of some 30 miles, arriving at Addicot, he is greeted by the late pastor's housekeeper.  Staying the night he finds that the pastor had an interest in, and a collection of artefacts from, the time of the ancients.  This was almost heresy for the ancients had brought down the wrath of God as predicted in the Book of Revelations and the ancients' world had ended with much suffering.  It was said that back then, in the time of King Charles, England's population was some 60 million, yet today, after centuries of slow growth, it was barely six.

Fairfax becomes intrigued.  Given he is forced to extend his visit beyond the funeral – the Parish's records have mysteriously gone missing – Fairfax begins to read some of the documents the late pastor had collected. Furthermore it was not entirely clear that the pastor's death had been accidental: he had died near the Devil's Chair, an overgrown, huge, concrete structure located at the edge of the parish dating from the time of the ancients.  And then there was the stranger who had shouted out at the pastor's funeral…

The Second Sleep is a very well crafted, post-apocalyptic, mundane science fiction tale in which the central conceit is superficially the search for what caused the ancients' world to collapse? However, as this is broadly signalled – though not made fully clear – early on, there is much lacking of detail, as well as the local connection to it all, which is what the priest (and reader) has to discern.  If, that is, the priest can escape possible discovery of his possibly heretical actions by, and retribution from, his Bishop while avoiding temptations of the world beyond his Exeter-based religious community.

This future, while superficially similar to post James 1st times – the language stems fro the use of the King James Bible and technologically there is gunpowder and the very beginnings of the use of water power in textile manufacture – it does have elements of a globally warmed climate: lemons can be grown albeit beneath a sheet of glass lent against a wall and there is much heavy rain (warmth causes more ocean evaporation and also enables the atmosphere to hold more water).  Obviously this global warming is a heritage of 20th and 21st century greenhouse gas emissions which, with climate feedbacks, are set to induce a warming pulse lasting roughly 100,000 years.

There is a small, but notable sub-genre of SF set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the plot's McGuffin is that this is a post-apocalyptic setting as is discovering what caused it as one of the plot's climatic reveals.  A well-known example of the former might be the 'sci-fi' movie The Planet of the Apes (1968) based on the superior 1963 novel by Pierre Boule: why the film's astronaut protagonist did not look up at the stars and Moon and so suss where he was is a moot point.  Another is the Babylon V season 4's final episode 'The Deconstruction of Falling Stars' in the episode's vignette section set in the year 3262 (which possibly was at least subconsciously inspired by A Canticle for Leibowitz).

In SF literature perhaps the closest territory which The Second Sleep explores, especially that with a religious dimension in the mix, is that of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (1955) and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) with this last's perplexing (to the novel's protagonists) message from the past: the cryptic 'Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels – Bring home for Emma'. (This novel came 20th in theSF² Concatenation's top 20, 1987/8 Eastercon poll of all-time best SF novels, so Robert Harris is covering ground that has in the past garnered favour with SF readers.)  Yet both these examples had nuclear war as the cause of humanity's technological civilisation downfall, and this very much followed a common theme often found in 1950s SF.  More recently, in the 2000s, we have had the technological singularity as the apocalyptic trigger.  Today, the 2010s, computer viruses have become vogue: for example, Cixin Liu's short ‘Curse 5.0’ in his collection The Wandering Earth.  It is not spoiler to say that Robert Harris's premise is a variation of the latter as this is signalled very early on in the book and the author himself revealed it in interviews in the national media the week of the novel's launch.

The more general warning the author is conveying is that for all its achievements and power it gives to individuals – instant, worldwide audiovisual personal communication, intercontinental air travel and so forth – our technological civilisation is far more susceptible to collapse than we either realise or (if we do) properly appreciate.  This will chime for many of us working in the environmental sciences as there are many potential threats that could carry our global society across a critical threshold into a new state.  For instance, climate change is but one example that is currently high in the public consciousness, but here are many others.  As I write this review, the science journal Nature's 150th anniversary edition has a paper on the resilience of the global production ecosystem on which our seven-plus billion population depends for its food supply: it is artificially kept (through energy and chemicals) productive in a semi-stable state which would collapse if either the energy and chemical supply was curtailed and/or the Earth system altered (such as through the afore-mentioned climate change).

There is a firm tradition within SF for providing warnings of potential, apocalyptic-level disaster.  For example, global pandemic (à la BBC's The Survivors (1975)) or global crop pathogen pandemic (John Christopher's The Death of Grass (1956)). All warn that our technological civilisation is far more susceptible to collapse than we realise, so Robert Harris is far from alone.

The Second Sleep is a well crafted and a tightly-written, straightforward read: it can easily be digested over a weekend in just two or three sittings.  The story itself is set over the period of just a few days. Though, as far as I am aware, this is the writer's first foray into speculative fiction, the book draws on the author's strengths as a previous writer of historical fiction.  It is a very good novel, but I fear that it may lose out in genre awards as the author is not known in SF circles.  This would be a shame: The Second Sleep certainly should easily make the long-list (if not the short-list) for, say, the Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award, and I sincerely hope that the publishers are doing their bit to ensure that it comes to the attention of the various award communities.  This is my way of saying that SF readers may very well want to check out this novel: just because it might miss out on the awards, it does not mean that you should.

Jonathan Cowie


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