The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Review by Basil Ransome-Davies, 3 October 2019

In his indispensable primer What Is History? E. H. Carr underlines the point that ‘History’ has a double meaning: both the events, or facts, of the past, and the record of those events (‘Prehistory’ describes the time before written records were kept). Facts are facts. Writing is a second-order reality. Written  history of any kind is interpretation. Even historians who agree on the facts – they don’t, always – often part company on their value and significance. Professor Carr rightly insists that no historical work can be impartial or definitive. There’s always a bias, however rigorous the method. All the same, as a serious major historian he does rather frown on the counterfactual what-ifs – suppose the Axis had won world War II; suppose a global meltdown of cyber-systems led to the collapse of 21st-century civilisation. And so on. Supposition is infinite.

But speculative fiction can legitimately revise history with benefits to the reader. Robert Harris, himself equally an author of ‘straight’ history, has now fleshed out the two contingencies cited above in his novels. Having done Hitler the winner in Fatherland (1992), in The Second Sleep he imagines a post-apocalyptic low-tech dystopia in which ‘Wessex’ is a theocracy that has reset the calendar and repudiates the past. It has the lot: muttering peasants, horse transport (if you’re lucky), stinking privies, the everyday sight of executed criminals rotting here and there and inevitably the Roman religion.   It’s not so not so much back to the future as forward to the past. In fact the story begins very precisely ‘Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468.’

It’s the fifteenth century, then. But not as we know it, because 800 years have passed since the techno-catastrophe that became identified with the scriptural Apocalypse, and the Church, with its ancient traditions and encrusted doctrines, has fully taken over the functions of the state. Obscurantist as ever, the Catholic hierarchs may have centuries to wait till they oppose the Reformation and the Enlightenment (though of course their predecessors already did it, back in the day), but they are getting their hands in by illegalising history. ‘Antiquarianism’ – the possession of blasphemous modern objects such as scientific apparatus or mobile phones – is a crime. The Apple logo is the sign of the Devil.  Books have been burned by the million.   

The engine of the plot is a mission given to a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, by Bishop Cope of Exeter. He must travel to Addicott St George, a village where the priest, Father Lacy, has just died, and arrange his funeral obsequies. It seems a routine task, but it segues into a tangled investigation that undermines Fairfax’s confidence in the beliefs he has been taught and his own role. His discovery that Father Lacy had been collecting tabooed texts and artefacts is only the next step in a sequence of dramatic episodes climaxing in a frenzied mass ‘dig’ on The Devil’s Seat, scene of the old priest’s death and a place of dread and superstition that entombs a powerful secret. At each tension point Fairfax makes a choice that draws him further in into heresy and crime, motivated partly by the suspicion that Father Lacy’s death had not been accidental. This eventually puts him in league with Doctor Shadwell, an obsessive archivist and excavator of the forbidden past.

This is a crazy book, wild in its imaginative reach. It imposes mental contortions on the reader. Anachronism rules. What else does speculative fiction mean? This is not Blade Runner, where the dystopian premise is an extreme continuation of present trends. It’s not 1984 (another future dictatorship flushing its past down the Memory Hole), which maps out Ingsoc’s hell on earth in solid political detail. Harris paints a broad-brush picture of an oppressive, retrofitted, pre-industrial society, and the quality of his book lies in its sensibility.  What the reader gets is less the facts than the vibes of history, presented through character. The rookie priest is sincere, sensitive and troubled. Few readers will be surprised that a lovely titled widow has the hots for him. A touch of romance is to be expected. But the scene-stealer in The Second Sleep is a character called John Hancock. He is potentially the man of the future, a virile, dynamic proto-capitalist, proto-Protestant figure who already has organised village textile production as a factory process, employing weavers as wage-slaves. He consciously articulates the secular ideology that motivates him, a trickle-down theorist avant la lettre:

‘I employ close on half the men in the valley. Because they produce more, I pay more. They then have more to spend in Axford market, and the stallholders and the shopkeepers can extend their product. Prosperity spreads. What objection can there be to that?’

The spiritual Fairfax counters that money too easily becomes an end in itself. Referencing Matthew 6:28, he invites Hancock to ‘consider the lilies: they toil not, they spin not’, only to hear the rejoinder, ‘that is because they are flowers.’

As Eric Morecambe used to say, there’s no answer to that. The unimaginative bourgeois-in-the-making disdains metaphor, but you feel his energy and grounded, practical wisdom are sowing the seeds of change. Harris’s intensely realised fiction of a restored late-mediaeval society suggests it is as fractured and unstable as our own.   

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Robert Harris, The Second Sleep (Hutchinson: London, 2019). 078-1786331373, 327 pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *