During the course of his career Harris has perfected the art of creating tension within a story to which we already know the ending: the Enigma codes were cracked, the eruption of Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii, the Munich Agreement did not bring peace. In The Second Sleep he turns the tables: this time we do not know the beginning. Twenty-first century civilisation has crashed to a catastrophic end – but why? Was it technological failure, antibiotic resistance, nuclear war? The stage seems set for a classic Harris thriller, the lowly functionary intent on challenging the entrenched interests of a secretive and ruthless state.
Harris leaves the specifics of the apocalypse open to interpretation: perhaps climate change (those parakeets, olive groves, tobacco grown locally), perhaps technological collapse. The church seems to lean toward the latter, and as a result has banned scientism and any unhealthy interest in ancients’ technology. Harris seems to be saying that churches, with their enduring stone buildings, would make natural nexus points for the survivors. And this is where readers familiar with ruined-earth novels and their rigorous logical extrapolation might begin to have difficulties.... there is a surprising lack of narrative tension, the internal inconsistencies are confounding and we have guessed the denouement long before it arrives. In the end, even Harris seems to give up, and all fades to black in a shower of cold, wet dirt.
This steadily engrossing tale stakes its clout on a last-gasp reveal that proves shockingly effective, though there’s a limit to how compelling even a writer of Harris’s gifts can make the archaeological dig on which the thunderbolt climax depends... Harris creates a sinister, sometimes ugly, frisson from glimpses of life in his imagined England — not least in the passing detail about a permanent war with an Islamic caliphate in Yorkshire. However, the book’s real power lies in its between-the-lines warning that our embrace of the internet represents some kind of sleepwalk into oblivion. It’s a provocative, tub‑ thumping sci-fi of which H. G. Wells might have been proud.
Harris’s bleak imagined world issues a clarion call to the present, urging us to recognise the value of progress, the importance of woolly concepts like liberalism and the rule of law, and all the other ideals we’ve spent generations fighting for yet seem prepared to sacrifice on the altar of populism. For make no mistake, this novel may be set in a Wessex that’s at once futuristic and quasi-medieval, but it’s very much about the here and now, about Trump and Brexit and the Govian rejection of experts...As Harris’s plot moves towards its pleasingly bombastic ending, Fairfax’s faith is put to the test. The swiftness with which the priest overthrows his worldview feels slightly hurried, but then this is nothing if not a page-turner.
Harris is rightly praised as the master of the intelligent thriller. This is neither a bucolic idyll, nor a savage dystopia. Instead, he creates a world teetering between a second dark age and another industrial revolution, peopled by characters drawn with a Dickensian confidence. Genuinely thrilling, wonderfully conceived and entirely without preaching, it probes the nature of history, of collective memory and forgetting, and exposes the fragility of modern civilisation.
The Second Sleep won’t seem entirely new to Harris fans. Its plot, at times, strongly resembles Fatherland, which also hinged on its protagonist uncovering dangerous repressed truths about the past. But this sense of familiarity doesn’t matter.
When Harris is at his best — and here he is — he writes with a skill and ingenuity that few other novelists can match. In this case, the usual page-turning pleasures are joined by something else: a sense that, through his historical-futuristic setting, Harris has found a unique vantage point to comment on the present.
On one level, it is a thoroughly absorbing, page-turning narrative in which the author, with his customary storytelling skills, pulls us ever deeper into the imaginative world he has created. On another, it poses challenging questions about the meaning of the past, the idea of progress and the stability of civilisation. It is a fine addition to Harris’s diverse body of work.
But speaking as a sucker for the Riddley Walker/The Book of Dave/Planet of the Apes school of post-apocalyptic stories, I liked it very much. It’s an involving entertainment containing some salutary ideas about how any theocracy leans on ignorance and fear, about the fragility of our own technological utopia and about the way history is just as likely to move in circles or gyres as in a straight line.
Sadly, The Second Sleep is unconvincing and lacking in alchemy. The overarching concept is that all civilisations collapse, a historical truism. But when civilisations collapse, the societies left behind are not catapulted backwards in time. Rather they endure, a mishmash of what collapsed and what survived... This being Harris, the writing is elegant and pacy. The characters are fleshed out and the plot zips along. The Second Sleep’s limp premise is competently executed, but even the best writers misfire sometimes.
There's a moment, about 20 pages in, when The Second Sleep pulls a trick so clever and unexpected, I laughed aloud. With just one paragraph, Robert Harris completely alters the reader's perspective; it feels like that scene in The Matrix when Neo realises the world he thought he knew doesn't exist at all. From that point, I was gripped...
I'll say no more on plot, except add the possibly redundant chaser that, as always, Harris weaves a smart, intriguing story that cements his reputation as, in the words of the cover, "master of the intelligent thriller". He's that perfect combination of equally fine writer and storyteller; the narrative is satisfying and the prose is evocative. The world of The Second Sleep is plausible and richly imagined, though anyone expecting a full explanation of causes, effects and future courses will be disappointed. Personally, I like that Harris leaves some details to our imagination - that little space in the text for readers to insert themselves and engage more fully with the fiction.
Harris is obviously tickled by the idea that we are becoming dangerously dependent on our devices — but he teasingly keeps this back-story fragmentary, while taking us close-up into Fairfax’s struggle to comprehend and survive the mess he has found himself in. The result is a truly surprising future-history thriller. Fabulous, really.