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The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris

29 November 2019

Gabriel Byng considers a dystopia in which the C of E calls the shots

THANKS to political events that hardly need recounting, dystopias are having a time in the sun. Robert Harris’s latest novel is a gripping contribution to this cultural moment, looking, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, towards the tensions between religion and liberalism. His book is set in the 15th century — not the one 600 years ago, but the one that will take place in a millennium’s time, once our own civilisation has collapsed.

In Harris’s universe, the Church of England is resurgent, possessing the political and spiritual monopoly of the medieval Church, although it has clung on to its 17th-century prayer book and 19th-century hymnals. Petrol engines, electricity, and decimal currency have disappeared; most people are peasants; and religion is an oppressive, punitive force. It is, in other words, not far from the 19th-century fantasy of the medieval “Dark Ages”.

The detail is entertaining rather than fully worked out — why does everybody learn Latin if they use BCP services? Is a vernacular Bible compatible with such an autocratic Church?

The plot is good whydunnit fare: a country parson is found dead in mysterious circumstances, and a wet-behind-the-ears priest is sent to investigate. The locals, speaking a Hardy-ish dialect, receive him with hostility. He meets the appealing lady of the manor — no prizes for guessing what happens here — and a loutish self-made type who, it transpires, has a heart of gold. The story is told with the tense plotting that any Harris fan would expect.

But what of Harris’s dystopia? Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, it is hard to see what strains of contemporary culture Harris is suggesting will come back to bite us: Anglicanism hardly feels like a malign cultural force on the path to world domination. There is a somewhat liberal secularist flavour to this vision. The Church, for example, is violently opposed to “scientism”, while the north has become a caliphate.

The cause of our civilisation’s sudden demise is a murky affair: something to do with too much digitalisation and interdependence. Most evocative is what survives of us: the characters are for ever turning up our plastic and glass, black rectangles with a bitten-Apple symbol, and never our books or ideas.

Dr Gabriel Byng is a research fellow and director of studies at Clare Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages (CUP, 2017).

The Second Sleep
Robert Harris
Hutchinson £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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