The Second Sleep
By Robert Harris
Hutchinson, 320pp, £20/$26.95
A new book by Robert Harris is a joyful event, for he has repeatedly proven that he has the gift of finding “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”, and building a novel on the results.
What if Hitler had won the War? That idea gave rise to Fatherland, one of the best thrillers of our time. What if Stalin had had an heir? The answer to that is to be found in Archangel. And now, what if the contemporary world were to be overtaken by catastrophe? Where would that catastrophe come from? And what might the new world of the surviving remnant be like?
The Second Sleep takes place in the year 1468 – but that is not the 1468 that any of us are familiar with. In this “year of our Risen Lord”, men smoke tobacco, priests are trained in seminaries and there is reference to an Elizabethan age.
Moreover, people are drinking “Devon red”, and it never seems to stop raining. This 1468 is 800 or so years into the future, as it is revealed that at some moment in the 2020s the highly developed and scientific society, whose plastic and glass shards are still to be found, imploded.
The date was then reset to 666, and the society that survived the Apocalypse is fundamentalist and Anglican, set against science and historical research, blaming the catastrophe that overtook “the Ancient World” on human sin and divine retribution. There’s no electricity or antibiotics, but plenty of disease and death, and lots of Cranmerian cadences, as any language that contradicts the world of the King James Bible has been outlawed.
As a dystopic vision, all this is brilliantly imagined and fascinating. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, rides into a small Devon village, sent to bury the previous vicar, who was something of an antiquarian, and who may just have discovered an important clue to what really happened to the Ancient World.
Life for the villagers is no pastoral idyll, but filled with hardship and grief. Those of us who long for a less complicated life, or who feel a nostalgia for the past, should be careful what we wish for.
At the same time, we should tremble for the hidden fragility of our own society, vulnerable as it is to climate change and over-reliance on technology, which seem the two most likely reasons for the collapse of the Ancient World.
It is, however, sobering to think that, while the author envisages a future where all that remains of technology is a pile of indestructible plastic waste, he sees the Church continuing, along with the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Church of the future, however, will have a male and celibate priesthood, and will exert the sort of control that we now associate with the ayatollahs of Iran.
As with most dystopias, the world created is far more interesting than the plot of the novel – this is true both of Fatherland as much as it is of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Father Fairfax, and the two allies he finds in the village, who begin to search out the truth of the past, awake into a nightmare. By trying to unbury – quite literally – the past, the hero of our tale only discovers that some things are better left undisturbed.
The ground in Devon is waterlogged, full of springs and unstable. So is the myth that the Church has constructed; so too is our myth, our belief in progress, perhaps.
The villain of the piece is Bishop Pole of Exeter, one who enforces the theocracy without actually believing in it himself. He hunts down heretics, but knows that the heretics are searching for the truth. The bishop represents something wrong with human nature itself. Convenience is no substitute for truth. In the end, only the truth matters, and anything founded on the denial of truth will not last: this applies to the theocracy of the dystopian future, but it surely applies to the here and now as well.
Robert Harris is a brilliant novelist, endlessly entertaining, who challenges not just our ideas of the past and the future, but our perception of the present too.