Book review: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Second Sleep pic

Penguin Books


“All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is.”

Robert Harris – The Second Sleep

“Greer sees the scientific profession sowing the seeds of its own undoing. These include the profiteering machinations of the medical industry, the demonstrable lies that scientific experts regularly tell the public, the verbal abuse that outspoken atheists within the scientific community hurl at people of faith and the toxic legacy that industrialism is leaving for future generations.

Even without these considerable downsides to modern-day science, scientific research would still have a tough go of it, since the resources on which it depends will be desperately needed for necessities like food production and defense against barbarians. In light of all this, predicts Greer, it will be a no-brainer for communities to decide to stop funding science altogether. Greer also sees laboratories and other scientific facilities being vandalized and burned down for the betrayal of public trust that they will have come to embody.”

A Review of Two Books by John Michael Greer: Dark Age America and The Retro Future by Frank Kaminski


Last month I wrote a post titled the Deep Future in which I charted the likely journey of our industrial civilisation over the course of the coming century or so as we descend into a future deindustrial Dark Ages.

Robert Harris, the brilliant British novelist, recently published a brillant novel, called The Second Sleep, which is posited in a future England after the collapse of our own civilisation in 2025. We never find out what triggered the collapse but the book hints that it was some type of global cyber-attack that brought down the internet.

Either way, the results were catastrophic for humanity. Our just-in-time (JIT) economic relationships collapsed amid the chaos, the ATM’s and supermarkets went empty and as a consequence society collapsed. A mass exodus of 8 million people fled London and the other great cities; fighting, rape, starvation and massacres stalked the land as the world descended into a 150 year long Dark Ages.

The fictional world where the reader explores is over 800 years after the Apocalypse as it is referred to. As the Guardian notes in their review, ‘into the void of the “Dark Age” steps a rejuvenated and dogmatic church, whose authoritarian rule and obsessive suppression of heretical “scientism” ensure that people live in brutal and backward conditions.’

I don’t intend to go into any further detail about the specific plot of the novel in case any of you wish to read the novel yourself (which I strongly recommend). What I do wish to do is explore some of the themes in the novel.

The scenario Robert Harris describes is what is known within the survivalist community as a “fast crash”. A sudden disaster causes chaos to our JIT systems, triggering shortages of food in our major urban centres which lead to mass panic and collapse. I used to fear that this was a likely scenario but over the years, after much reading and thinking, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is an unlikely fate. Whilst localised breakdown of food production and distribution are likely in the future, a global collapse is extremely unlikely given that there are many things governments can do, in an emergency, to ensure that food is requisitioned, rationed and distributed accordingly.

One should also remember that the majority of the world’s population are far less dependent upon the internet and global trading networks for their daily sustenance. Still, even if Harris fictional scenario remains unlikely, you should always prepare for short-term disruption to supplies, for example in the event of a global pandemic or in the case of major civil unrest.

One of the major themes in the book is the power of organised religion in this future Britain. A common pattern during the decline periods of previous civilizations is a resurgence of organised religion which has been termed the Second Religiosity by scholars. Note that it isn’t always the traditional religion that revives, after all, it was the Christians, not the legacy Pagan cult religions, that surged as the Roman Empire disintegrated.

In Harris book, it is the Church of England, with its network of thousands of churches, which act as a sanctuary after the collapse of our own civilization. Slowly, within a generation or two, the surviving descendants embrace a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity which explains the collapse through the narrative of a sinful world destroyed by the Beast himself.

Science is distrusted and deemed heretical in this world. And who can blame them? After all, it was science and the civil religion of progress that created a high-tech civilisation that imploded with unimaginable horror, death and suffering.

In our future world a similar fate awaits science as referenced in the review of John Greer Dark Age America book at the top. Imagine the scene: its 2121, our civilisation is falling apart and enraged mobs destroy the remaining scientific establishments and hunt down scientists who are widely blamed for the nightmare unfolding. Science promised the masses eternal economic growth, flying cars, space travel and instead the world is descending into darkness.

The rise of religion also revisits another theme explored in the novel which is the reversion to medieval forms of geopolitical warfare in this far future Britain. Scotland is an independent fiefdom in a long-term war against the English.

In the north of England, the descendants of the Muslim populations who migrated to Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries formed a Northern Caliphate which is engaged in a permanent religious war against Christian England. All of the above are credible long-term possibilities should the United Kingdom disintegrate during the twilight era of our industrial civilisation.

Of course, this is a book of fiction, even if it is well researched, and it is unlikely that a far future Britain would correspond so closely with medieval England. I suspect that aspects of our late civilizational period would survive in a mutated form in a far future England. This would involve air travel (small planes for the elites), rudimentary renewable technologies, the use of ham radios and other low-tech technologies that don’t require extensive petroleum inputs to function.

My Americans readers are encouraged to read John Greer’s Dark Age America non-fictional book on what a deindustrial America might look like in the future. I would also recommend John Greer’s Stars Reach, a fictional novel in a post-collapse American world hundreds of years from now.

Overall, the book was a gripping read and a thought provoking take on the fragility of our current era and what might take its place in the centuries to come.

Book review: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

One thought on “Book review: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

  1. Kim says:

    Thank you for that review – I am reading it, and enjoying it, but the time thing had me perplexed: so (overthinking a specialty here), it seemed possible to me that time had started heading backwards, although the informed acceptance of things like plastics, Nobel Prize, etc added to the confusion. I know that time can’t run backwards (adopt accent here: Ye cannae change the laws of physics), so the post-apocalyptic reset makes more sense. I’m just going to get swept along in the rest of the book now.


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