- Book: The Second Sleep
- Location: Berkshire, Dorset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Wiltshire
- Author: Robert Harris
The Second Sleep is set in the Year of the Risen Lord 1468. A newly ordained priest is sent on a mission to Wessex to bury a village minister who has just died. The reader thinks that maybe Robert Harris has been careless when he talks about parakeets in the air and the dead minister has what appears to be an old iPhone in his room. But all soon becomes clear (not a spoiler because it is revealed very early…), We are not in 1468 as we would understand it. We are 2500 years in the future… a new calendar started in 666 – 6 centuries after our civilisation collapsed in the 2020s. A new civilisation is being built, and it is illegal to mention the old one.
But why did our civilisation collapse? Robert puts us through various theories – climate change, a nuclear exchange, a super volcanic eruption, an asteroid strike, a general failure of computer technology, and a pandemic resistant to antibiotics, the most likely of which seems to be a catastrophic failure of technology. We rely on technology to such an extent that if it were to collapse – if, for example, a computer virus were to destroy the Cloud, humanity just could not cope. All knowledge would be lost and transactions could not be processed. Food could not be grown or bought – the inhabitants would flee the cities. It would be a true Apocalypse. All these things could, of course, happen – which is very much the point of the book. Robert’s theory is that all civilisations end, and that new ones eventually replace them.
So, against this background, The Second Sleep is very much a medieval tale of intrigue – looking for evidence of the previous civilisation but in way entirely appropriate to the time in which it is set. Our newly ordained priest challenges the conventional wisdom of the time, and questions his own faith. He converses with ‘heretics’ in his search for the truth.
And, unlike many a thriller, the ending leaves us asking as many questions as have been answered.
Robert Harris is a quite extraordinary and varied writer. From his books on Roman times, through a ‘what if’ had Hitler won WW2, to a brilliant book describing the election of a new pope – there is a consistent theme of power and the impact it has on us and our leaders.
The Second Sleep is a more than interesting book from a master storyteller. I recommend it as something quite different.
Wessex encompassed the modern areas of Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Dorset and Wiltshire, as well as the western half of Berkshire and the eastern hilly flank of Somerset.