- - Thursday, November 14, 2019

One of the epigraphs to Robert Harris’ new novel “The Second Sleep” is from Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” 

It notes that “It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for the space of fifteen hundred years.”

“The Second Sleep” begins on Hardyesque mode with “a solitary traveler [who] was to be observed picking his way on horseback across that wild moorland of that ancient region of southwestern England known since Saxon times as Wessex.” The traveler was anxious. “Soon it would be dusk, and if he was caught out of doors after curfew he risked a night in jail.”

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So, it seems we have an historical novel about Wessex, set, we have been told, in 1468. Confirmatory details including “three felons hung rotting from their gibbets,” a hunched figure pushing a handcart and the threat of “a day in the stocks being pelted by stones” for anyone reckless enough to inconvenience a priest.

For that is what our horseman is. Christopher Fairfax has been sent by his bishop to take the funeral and arrange for the burial of Thomas Lacy, the priest of a remote moorland parish. 

But when Christopher arrives in the parsonage, the reader spots another set of details: His pipe-smoking habit for example, and a long-case clock. Surely not in 1468? And given that Robert Harris has earned a reputation as a skilled and careful historical novelist, these anachronisms cannot derive from ignorance. 

In fact that date — 1468 — is identified not as Anno Domini but as the year of Our Risen Lord, so those familiar with the Book of Revelations will be alerted to the post-Armageddon world of this novel. It resembles the pre-Industrial Age. Lighting comes from candles, transportation is by foot or horse, women spin at the doors of their thatched cottages. An early 18th century-style woolen mill with many looms tended by workers employed by a rich, sometimes tyrannical, mill owner is the most modern thing around.

Yet there are oddments such as a shell-shaped sign, a bundle of plastic straws and a small glass-fronted thing with the symbol of a bitten apple. Christopher wonders what it can be for. Plastic and glass are rare, though broken fragments not uncommon. Occasional glass vessels turn up too, and they are wondrous and valuable.

Like the buried Roman soldiers discovered near Hardy’s Casterbridge, “sometimes with the remains of a spear … a fibula or a brooch of bronze on his breast,” the bits of plastic and glass are remnants of another era, the detritus of a civilization that died. That civilization is our own. All its wonders — the cellphones, the cars and roads they drive on, even those drinking straws — have passed and knowledge of them has been suppressed by the all-powerful church. Investigating them is heresy.

Yet in Father Lacy’s house Christopher finds books, including a volume on the rediscovered artifacts of England, and an ancient letter from a Nobel laureate warning that while disaster threatened, little preparation was being made to handle it.

According to this scientist-prophet, the disaster could come as a result of a destructive war or climate change or epidemics or other events that would prevent electrical generation. Without electricity, our technological wonders disappear: Our lighting, our mechanized industry, our ability to raise huge buildings, our phones and computers and everything they control. This is what has happened and Christopher’s dystopian world is the result. 

Like all dystopias, this one springs out of physical, political and social conditions that already exist. Authors imagine what might accrue if there are no countervailing forces. Readers follow them into the dark world they conjure up, often seeing familiar things either ruined or ballooned to hideous proportions. When the starting points of a dystopia taps into our rambling fears and regiments them into an orderly view, the result can be compulsively readable. 

This is the case throughout much of “The Second Sleep.” Robert Harris’ plot keeps Christopher questing and so keeps readers realizing the risks of our technologies. Though best known for his historical novels, the author is not new to such topics. His 2012 novel, “The Fear Index,” focused on the possibilities of artificial intelligence. 

But unlike that earlier work, the plot of “The Second Sleep” falters because it cannot locate a believable and satisfying end point. This may be because most of the characters, perhaps Christopher and the mill-owner excepted, are puppets jerkily responding to the plot’s demands on them rather than themselves generating action and its complications

These flaws notwithstanding, “The Second Sleep” is evidence of the anxiety of our time, and worth reading and thinking about for that reason.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Robert Harris

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages

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