Robert Harris is the author of 12 bestselling novels, including the 'Cicero Trilogy', Fatherland,Enigma, The Ghost, The Fear, and most recently Munich. His novels are always extremely readable, but also provide underlying reflections on contemporary issues. His latest novel, The Second Sleep, is no different in those regards.
The Second Sleep, which has already been commissioned for filming, begins with the words,"Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of south-western England known since Saxon times as Wessex". The solitary traveller is a young priest Christopher Fairfax, riding to a remote Exmoor village, where he is to officiate at the funeral of Father Lacy, the long serving local priest,. Fairfax doesn't believe he will be long in the village and expects to return soon to his Exeter Cathedral chapter house.
Lacy's death, however, in a fall at the Devil's Chair, a rock-strewn valley, may not have been an accident. And was his death connected to the fact that Lacy has been collecting forbidden books and mysterious artefacts. These include, in a world in which plastic cannot be made, "plastic cutlery, plastic bottles of all shapes and varieties" and an artefact, that Fairfax finds, "smaller than his hand, black and smooth and shiny, fashioned out of plastic and glass . . . On the back . . . an apple with a bite taken out of it". What is an Apple phone doing in a medieval world with no technology?
Fairfax finds in Lacy's library a 2022 document from a British academic group headed by a Nobel Prize winner, Peter Morganstern foreshadowing steps needed "to prepare for a systemic collapse of technical civilisation" and outlining" six possible catastrophic scenarios". Morganstern concludes, "all civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is". Civilisation clearly collapsed soon after 2022. In a world now strictly controlled by the church, pursuit of science is seen as "the path to hell". Here implicit cross-references to the current denial of scientific evidence in political debates. Fairfax's investigation into Lacy's evidence raises dangers for himself and his newly found associate Lady Durston, particularly when the key to the past is to be found at the Devil's Chair. But what will be the price for Fairfax and his associates of uncovering the truth?
Harris's conclusion, after such intriguing scene setting, is somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, The Second Sleep is a riveting read and, hopefully, it will encourage mainstream readers to find the numerous excellent SF dystopian futures.
- The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris. Hutchinson. $32.99.
- Colin Steele is a Canberra reviewer.