In this weekend’s special holiday issue of the New York Times Book Review, I review Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep.
As a novelist, Robert Harris has the gift of immersing readers in an unfamiliar milieu, and thrilling them with the subsequent emotional, physical and ethical challenges faced by the protagonist as he (and it is always he) navigates mounting obstacles to a supposedly routine task — and, in the process, unearths unexpected truths.
Those who are familiar with such classic Harris historical thrillers as “Imperium” will, then, settle into the opening pages of “The Second Sleep” alert for clues. April 1468: The arrogant, newly ordained Christopher Fairfax is journeying to the remote Wessex village of Addicott St. George to perform a burial service, that of the village’s priest, Father Lacy. The reader nods knowingly as the bishop of Exeter instructs Fairfax to be quick about the trip and to use utmost discretion. As the young priest and his ancient mare plod through the gray, mist-sodden landscape, his arrogance turns to uneasiness. And as clues flick past — the emerald flash of a parakeet, a church that has “stood square on this land for at least a thousand years, more likely fifteen hundred” — we begin to share that unease.
You should probably go read the rest now for the rest of this post to make sense.
I’ve enjoyed many Harris novels—I particularly admire his Cicero trilogy, starting with Imperium—but for me The Second Sleep does not succeed. Parts of it are fine—Harris is really good at putting his characters in their landscape—but it’s all in service of a shoddy overall narrative arc. It feels like a tourist’s attempt at a Ruined Earth novel that collapses both from illogical and inconsistent world-building, and the inability to escape the event horizon of the essential ruined-earth premise.
Before we go any further, let’s have some definitions. For me (others differ slightly) a classic ruined-earth novel is science fiction set on this planet generations after a civilisation-wrecking disaster such as nuclear holocaust, technological collapse, and/or climate disaster. The apocalyptic event/s occurred so far in the narrative past that the present-day citizens are unaware of that past, or have largely forgotten how it was; often, they have mythologised that previous era, and demonised its citizens’ dependence upon or affinity for science and technology. This shunning of science and technology is enforced either explicitly by the ruling religious class, or implicitly by cultural taboo. This usually means culture has regressed to a relatively primitive agrarian society, including a return to rigid hierarchies of class, gender, race, and so on.
This definition excludes all kinds of post-apocalyptic fiction such as McCarthy’s The Road (the apocalypse is too recent; ditto Mandel’s Station Eleven), Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (not set on this planet) and Stevenson’s Seveneves (no shunning of technology). Always Coming Home by Le Guin does not fit my definition because the Kesh use technology (and also because I’m not entirely sure it’s a novel, but that’s whole other conversation). Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake also doesn’t fit because there’s no shunning of technology. Suzy Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles are an interesting case but in the end I’d say they don’t quite fit the bill because there’s not much tech to shun, and no religious/cultural taboo regarding its use and/or artefacts.
In my definition, the essential premise of a classic ruined-earth novel is conflict between those who want to recover old technologies, and those who wish to suppress it for fear of it precipitating another apocaplypse. Classic examples include Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. They are all great books in their own way, but none entirely succeed in escaping the gravitational pull of the ruined-earth premise. To be fair, I’m not sure it’s possible to escape it, not possible to resolve the constant tension between an orderly system and its inevitable collapse into disorder. It’s like trying to banish entropy.
A good ruined-earth novel is easy to set up, and a good writer can sustain it for quite a while, harvesting all sorts of luscious fruit along the way, but eventually the author is faced with a decision: Is their character’s society going to remain disordered/ignorant (that is, is the author going to sidestep the premise), or will it begin to rise towards order again, in which case what will prevent it collapsing again as soon as enough order is achieved to enable fantastically dangerous weapons/climate change/reliance on massively complex interconnected systems? As far as I’m aware, no one has found an answer to that, especially if enough was lost in that initial catastrophe that memory of the mistakes that led to it evaporated along with the technology. Leigh Brackett’s novel is one of the best: flat-out brilliant until the last quarter where it crushes itself flat trying to squeeze through the seam between mid-century gender constraints and the second law of thermodynamics. Miller simply repeats endless cycles of growth and destruction. Hoban avoids deciding by dodging the question and walking away. And Wyndham cheats by suddenly widening the available world to include another society so far away that it may as well be another planet. All of these books, though, are worth reading.
The Second Sleep, in my opinion, is not. (And now you really should go read the review.) The more closely you look at it, the less it makes sense. How can a society build itself from nothing to 18th-century levels of technology without the natural resources that were thoroughly depleted in the run-up to the initial collapse? It can’t. Well, you might say, they could salvage all the metal lying around. Well, no, they couldn’t—entropy, remember? (This is where Hoban’s Ridley Walker fails, too.) All those metals will oxidise and corrode. The soil is degraded. The wildlife extinct. The seed crop initially available would have been reliant upon fertilisers no longer produced. Also, 18th-century technology even then was largely dependent on global trade—which no longer exists. And how come all the populations of our actual 18th-century that actually existed but (that our actual 18th-century novels ignored)—people of colour, women with minds, disabled people, queer people, people of various religions—vanish in this new society? I could go on—and I haven’t even mentioned the plot holes, or character inconsistencies.
The Second Sleep, then, is just the latest failure in a long line of failed ruined-earth genre set in the future. But how about a ruined-earth novel set in the past? It might be an interesting intellectual exercise to argue it’s been done before, a lot: all those Matter of Britain novels in which, after the collapse of civilisation—that is, the Fall of Rome—Arthur and his Camelot are the last redoubt of civilisation and its technologies (literacy, law, stone architecture, roads, money, etc.) fighting off the encroaching barbarism of invading Anglo-Saxons. (Ignore the fact that both the Fall of Rome and Anglo-Saxon invasions are concepts rather frowned upon these days by historians.) To the degree that these novels succeed, it is because the conflict between technology and barbarism is tackled head-on in the form of clashing armies, and neither side wholly loses: the seeds of technological rebirth are sown in the decades of peace Arthur creates between invading waves, and though Britain moves forward speaking the barbaric English tongue rather than civilised Latin, we all know civilisation will flower again—as embodied in the guise of magical sword Excalibur and Arthur and his knights sleeping somewhere beneath the fair hill. Hope, in the end, is the Once and Future King. And hope is what The Second Sleep lacks.