The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris
An unusual one for Harris: technically sf, but to him it’s obviously just another story so I’ve not heard anyone claim it as such, and I prefer this to famous lit’ry types decreeing that they are writing sf whether you like it or not, and the answer tends to be “not” because they have no clue of the tropes they are wrestling with. And breathe. Because this isn’t published as sf, I’m spared the painful task of saying that it’s not very good sf. But it’s still a cracking read. It’s no great spoiler – because you start to work it out from page 2 – that what appears to be England in the Middle Ages is in fact centuries in the future, our present civilisation having collapsed almost overnight around 2025. From barely surviving antique documents, historians of the future deduce it might have been something to do with “cyber warfare”, whatever that is. They know all our money and most of our knowledge was in “the cloud” (whatever that is) so when that vanished it was essentially game over.
Think something like The Chrysalids, something like A Canticle for Leibowitz, except that the world is still intact. Harris does take the entirely reasonable position that church buildings were made of stone and designed to last centuries – that’s why they are still around today. So, they are still around here, too, whereas apart from concrete megastructures and geographical features like the M40 gorge through the Chilterns, there’s very little sign of our present day buildings. The church is ascendant and determined to keep anyone from delving too deeply into the secrets of the ancients in case they bring down the wrath of God again. The novel takes place in the 1400s … because the calendar was reset to 666 in the year of the collapse. Hey, I did say it’s not brilliant sf. There is a nice line when a bishop is accused of burning books. He replies indignantly that knowledge is not for burning. Beat. It’s for suppressing.
Our civilisation is precariously perched, and it obviously bugs Harris big time. And it should. The eeriest chapter is when a future historian describes what he has deduced about the apocalypse. London was a city of some 8 million inhabitants, but with almost no space dedicated to producing food: so, never more than six meals away from starvation. Within days of the collapse there was the Great Exodus as London’s 8 million inhabitants marched out of the city. We know this from the mass graves at Redhill, St Albans, Dartford … There are still surviving messages carved on the walls of churches – those handy long-lived structures again – of people looking for loved ones, by which historians can trace the routes people took around the country and mark the points where their journeys ended, usually in death. There’s also a throwaway theological discussion that comes back to bite as people discuss the story of Noah’s Ark. Even the survivors of that story must have had friends and family they had to abandon: how ruthless must you be to be a successful survivor?
As usual in a Harris novel, everything is proceeding normally until someone uncovers the first loose thread in a life-threatening mystery. To have that mystery be rooted nearly 1000 years ago is quite a feat, but he manages it. As is unusual – and this is my one gripe – some characters act carelessly or against type just because the plot requires them to, so maybe Harris hasn’t fully come to grips with writing this kind of non-sf sf. This one isn’t up there with the best of his oeuvre but it’s by no means the least.