Robert Harris has been writing bestselling novels since 1992. The Second Sleep, his thirteenth, ventures further into science fiction than any of his previous works. (Broadly speaking, three others — Fatherland, Conclave, and The Fear Index — also qualify.) Now, if you hope to read this novel and you hate spoilers, consider this your warning: don’t read any further here. Because this novel depicts a dystopian future England eight centuries after the Apocalypse of 2025 — an event that the people of the twenty-ninth century are unable to understand. Was it a nuclear war? A pandemic? The eruption of a super-volcano or collision with an asteroid? Or, perhaps most likely, did the Internet suddenly collapse, paralyzing the civilization of the people now known as “the ancients?”
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris (2019) 301 pages
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Life under the thrall of the Church in a dystopian future England
Now, eight centuries after the Apocalypse, the King and the Church of England rule society in a fashion very little different from that of medieval times. Throughout the land, much of the evidence of the ancients’s technologically-driven society has crumbled to dust. (If you doubt this is realistic, read The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization by Vince Beiser.) In nearly every town and village, the tallest structure left standing was the church. And the only institution capable of leading the reconstruction of society was the Church. Life now, in the tiny villages and towns where most of England’s six million people live, is grounded in the rhythms and rituals of Christianity.
Did the secrets of the past lie in old books?
Harris’s protagonist, young Father Christopher Fairfax, has been sent on a mission to a village called Addicott St. George in the west of England to bury an aged priest who had recently died. There, he quickly learns that Father Thomas Lacy may have been murdered and that he was a heretic with a library containing old books the Church has proscribed. Driven by curiosity and an embarrassing attraction to a local noblewoman, Christopher dives into the forbidden books.
Like all of Harris’s work, The Second Sleep is peopled by believable characters who act in ways that are unsurprising given the circumstances in which they live. And those circumstances are themselves credible given the assumptions behind the novel. In this dystopian future England, people act as you’d think they would. Robert Harris pulls off this thriller with aplomb.
What is the truth behind the death of Father Lacy?
It turns out that the noblewoman, Sarah, Lady Durston, of Durston Court, is as attracted to Christopher as he is to her. The problem is, a wealthy local mill owner has set his sights on marrying her, and the man may prevent the two of them from getting together by revealing Christopher’s heretical behavior. (He’s reading those banned old books, after all.) But, together, Christopher and Sarah persist in seeking out the truth behind the death of Father Lacy — and they gain an unexpected ally in the process.
For further reading
I’ve reviewed several other novels by Robert Harris, including:
- Munich (Robert Harris explains why Neville Chamberlain went to Munich)
- Conspirata – Ancient Rome Trilogy #2 (Ancient Rome, before the fall)
- The Fear Index (A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds)
And you can find all of Harris’s novels here: The spellbinding thrillers of Robert Harris.
I’ve also read two other books — both science fiction classics — that explored a similar theme: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. However, I read both books long before I launched this blog and thus have not reviewed them here.
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.