This is the third Robert Harris novel I have reviewed, and the previous two were both winners, so I anticipated his latest. His first novel dealt with a Papal Conclave, and the second dealt with Munich, just before WWII. This latest novel breaks the model, as it is set far into the future. Most science fiction tales assume supernatural powers in the future, for both men and every conceivable physical asset. Future scientific developments appear unlimited, and how they are used makes up the plot of most science fiction.
Harris turns this upside down and posits a future many centuries after a cataclysm that occurred in 2025, an event that virtually destroyed most vestiges of civilization, including electricity, transportation other than by horse, and sanitary conditions. In this new age, archeology is forbidden, as is any study of history. The “Church” has now become the effective government in England.
The plot revolves around a new young priest, assigned to administer the funeral of a country priest. He gradually discovers the dead priest had actually dug up past assets, and had tried to decipher the now-lost civilization that had existed. For example, he uncovers an Apple iPad but cannot figure out what it did or how it was used, since knowledge of electricity has been lost.
The priest gradually uncovers some of the mysteries, but at the same time makes enemies who try to stop him. So, in one sense, this book is more or less a mystery story set in the future. Who did it? Why? What is the outcome? You will have to read the book yourself to resolve these questions and issues. Suffice it to say, the plot is totally believable, once you grant the author the freedom to have invented his dystopian future world.
From my perspective, the real strength of the book is the assumption that the future does not have to improve. Civilization as we know it is fragile and it is entirely possible that 100 or 200 years from now, people will look back on the early 21st century as a golden age. While we are living through the current coronavirus, it suddenly does seem that things could get worse, not better.
While “The Second Sleep” deploys a difficult world, the saving grace is that Harris’ 2025 cataclysm, derived from the Book of Revelation, probably will not occur. But if it does, here is how future generations may live. Be thankful for what we have now.