A recent novel highlights the fragility of our technological age
Robert Harris is a great storyteller, a novelist who can make even the election of a new pope into a gripping page turner (which he did in Conclave). But his The Second Sleep, published late last year, is of particular interest because the story raises so many of the issues that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore.
The pandemic highlighted many questions about the sustainability of our modern way of life because it is so extremely reliant on systems sustained purely by technology. This fragility is the basis of the The Second Sleep, a book that begins in a medieval landscape that we learn is actually the future.
In the first chapter a young priest, Christpher Fairfax, travels to a distant village on horseback. He has been sent there by the bishop to perform the last rites of the local priest. Fairfax travels through this harsh landscape to the dead priest’s house. While staying there he discovers that the deceased seems to have had a great interest in matters that are forbidden and punishable by law. These forbidden activities mainly consist of an interest in history and archaeology particularly concerning the heretical age of ‘scientism.’
Fairfax discovers a number of objectionable artefacts in the late priest’s collection including “pens, glassware, a plate commemorating a royal wedding, a bundle of plastic straws” and “what seemed to be the pride of the collection: one of the devices used by the ancients to communicate, which has on its back “the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy — an apple with a bite taken out of it.” That is the point in the story in which the reader realises that the book is set in the future, eight centuries after our modern age, in a time that followed the apocalypse which was triggered in 2025 AD when large numbers of the population were wiped out by disease and the wars which followed an epidemic and the collapse of communications and various science-based systems.
The young priest is disturbed by this discovery but he is also intrigued by what he reads in a publication of the Society of Antiquarians (now banned and considered heretical). Through this journal he learns that by the beginning of the 20th century there had been concerns in some scientific circles about the sustainability of that way of life because it was so reliant on technology. These concerns — expressed by a ‘Nobel Prize winner at Imperial College, London’ — outline how vulnerable central systems are to various eventualities and how technological and scientific finding and advancement could easily be lost in the event of a disaster and the ensuing anarchy.
For all of us who are now living through a global pandemic, the points raised in the letter written by this fictional scientist centuries ago seem both oddly familiar and quite chilling. In the letter he warns that “London existed at any moment only six meals removed from starvation” and that “society has reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse.” The question of who this man was and what became of his efforts to keep technology safe for the future becomes a preoccupation with Fairfax who is drawn into a quest he knows is illegal and ‘heretical.’ The story unfolds intriguingly in a manner that reminds one in various measures of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code… But as in all Robert Harris novels the basic preoccupation is with power and the behaviour and structures that make it possible to hold on to that power.
The title of this book incidentally, refers to ‘the once common practice of having a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night, before then returning to bed.’ Does this refer to Fairfax’s quest or does it refer to the height of technological advancement, the ‘scientism’ so derided by the church-dominated society of the future? It really can apply to both, but hopefully this tale will at least open the eyes of those of us who can see in it a warning to be heeded a vision of a future that we are now facilitating through the complacency of the digital age and our belief that it is invulnerable
This is an intriguing and thought-provoking story and like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is a disturbingly credible snapshot of our future world.