Saturday 21 September 2019

The Second Sleep: An apocalyptic reprise of the Middle Ages and clerical power

Fiction: The Second Sleep

Robert Harris

Hutchinson, hardback, 327 pages, €15.99

Superstitious times: Robert Harris sets The Second Sleep more than eight centuries into the future
Superstitious times: Robert Harris sets The Second Sleep more than eight centuries into the future
The Second Sleep by Robet Harris
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

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. We begin by thinking this story is set in Medieval times - people travel by horseback, there's no electricity, the Christian church holds sway with an iron fist. Meanwhile, the blurb tells us the action is set in 1468.

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There are two crucial letters missing at the end of that date, though. This is not the familiar AD, but ARD: Anno Ressurexit Domini, the Year of Our Risen Lord. We're not in the past, but far into the future: more than eight centuries after "the Apocalypse", when the technological civilisation we currently know was utterly destroyed. (They date their calendar from the year 666 - Satan being blamed for this calamity - hence The Second Sleep's setting of 1468.)

Humanity, we gradually learn, went through a long period of chaos and horror after the fall: a second Dark Age. Roughly a century later, society reordered itself around religion. Now, for 700 years, England has existed as a sort of cover version of the Middle Ages. (I would say Olden Times Version 2.0, but this book makes you a bit wary of computers.)

Life is, as per Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. Peasants slave on the land, superstition is rife, infant mortality is through the roof. The church rules in tandem with the King, but really, most power lies in clerical, not Crown, hands. They ruthlessly suppress all heresy, which tends not towards denial of the One True God - everyone's a believer now - but an "unhealthy" interest in the past, i.e. our present: the pre-Apocalypse. Antiquarians study the few remnants which survived: scraps of plastic and glass, a child's toy, an old phone. (Harris wryly describes the iPhone logo, with its obvious connection to Adam and Eve, as "the ultimate symbol of the ancients' hubris and blasphemy: an apple with a bite taken out of it".)

A few courageous antiquarians still study the ancients' technology, staying right side of the law by decrying it, rather than calling for its return. One of those was Father Lacy, priest in the hamlet of Addicott St George, on the edge of Exmoor in south-west England.

He recently died after falling from a height known, ominously, as the Devil's Chair. Young priest Christopher Fairfax is sent by his bishop to bury Lacy and promptly return to base. Once in "Adcut", however, he gets entangled in a mystery and, against his sense of self-preservation, becomes compelled to unknot it.

In Lacy's study, Fairfax finds various archaeological trinkets from the early 21st century. There's also a book which provides him, and us, with speculation on what exactly caused the catastrophe.

A physics professor and Nobel laureate, Morgenstern, had lived in the area and, in a letter written in 2022, predicted a general collapse of technological civilisation. That it would happen, from one of several possible causes, was, he felt, inevitable; the important thing was to ensure society could regroup and return to previous heights.

Meanwhile, an antiquarian, Shadwell, arrives in town, dying of some lung disease but ferociously determined to uncover the secrets of Morgenstern, the Devil's Chair and the prelapsarian era. Along with Fairfax, local textiles tycoon Hancock and penurious aristocratic Lady Sarah Durston, they begin the precarious and potentially deadly work of investigating.

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.

The title, incidentally, refers to how, before the arrival of "clock time" during the Industrial Revolution, people would generally sleep twice every night - waking in the wee hours to stoke the fire or attend to other household chores before returning to bed. It's a reminder of how far into the past England has regressed here, and stands as a metaphor: the light of science and education has dimmed, and people stumble through the darkness of fear and ignorance.

It's not quite on a par with absolute first-class Harris - Fatherland, Archangel, The Ghost - but The Second Sleep is as close as dammit.

Darragh McManus's books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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