Back to the future in religious dystopia

Fiction
The Second Sleep
Robert Harris
Hutchinson, $32.99

Here is a nightmare scenario for you. What if all the countless electronic devices on which we have grown to depend stop working all of a sudden? Would we know how to cope or would our entire civilisation simply collapse?

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The Second Sleep, Robert Harris’ 13th novel, presents a compelling dystopian vision of a world that has had to rediscover how to live without digital technology or the electricity that powers it. A novelist best known for historical fiction set mainly during the Roman Empire and the Second World War, Harris has cleverly set The Second Sleep in a far future that bears an uncanny resemblance to the distant past. A central theme of the novel is that people who cannot remember the past will simply repeat it.

The narrative begins with what appears to be a medieval murder mystery with inflections of Thomas Hardy and Umberto Eco.

‘‘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.’’

It emerges that the reality is different from that suggested by the first sentence – how we become aware of this is handled deftly. For one thing, these apparently pre-modern characters know about plastic. For another, there are massive ruins that do not belong to any civilisation that existed before the Middle Ages. Feral parakeets, which became widespread in Britain in the 1990s, seem to dominate the English countryside.

The fragile world of today, in which nothing is made to last, has left very few traces. ‘‘Paradoxically, what was supposedly the ultimate and most advanced phase of scientific technology has left almost nothing behind but plastic and fragments of glass.’’

The solitary traveller is Christopher Fairfax, a young priest sent to a small village to conduct the funeral of an older clergyman whose death, it transpires, is related somehow to his secret researches into the obscure society that existed before the Church established absolute control over every aspect of life. Any attempt to investigate the secular past is viewed as heresy since it challenges the authority of the Church. Religion has replaced the science that for a time supplanted religion.

Once readers get their heads around the audacious premise of The Second Sleep, those who know Harris’ books will recognise the familiar lightness of touch. Unlike some authors of popular fiction, he does not resort to crude shock nor does he add masses of detail and explication, trusting in the imagination of the reader.

True to form, The Second Sleep is both thought provoking and thrilling.

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