Robert Harris’s novel The Second Sleep compared to Handmaid’s Tale

Robert Harris says his new novel, The Second Sleep, is a “political fantasy. Penguin Random House

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LONDON, ENGLAND — The movie has one of the most famous endings in Hollywood history — and even today, even among film buffs already aware of what they’ll be seeing, that final scene from Planet of the Apes remains a shocker.

So what’s the connection with Robert Harris’s stunning new thriller, The Second Sleep? Simply this — readers will be in for the same kind of bombshell revelations that cinema audiences of 51 years ago experienced when the stranded astronaut played by Charlton Heston encountered the remains of the Statue of Liberty arising out of a blighted landscape.

This time we’re plunged into medieval England “in the year of our Lord 1468.” And it’s in this distant century that a young priest stumbles onto a cache of forbidden artifacts — among them plastic bottles, tiny toy bricks and banknotes.

There’s even a “device used by the ancients to communicate” — a battered symbol of a blasphemous past that — horror of horrors — bears the sinister imprint of “an apple with a bite taken out of it.”

So where exactly are we?

“Well, I hope you’re in an all-encompassing world,” Harris says. “I think that’s what I wanted to create. But more than any of my other novels, this one is out of my imagination.”

It’s within this strange and ambiguous historical setting that Harris has also fashioned a cautionary tale for today — a tale over which the 21st century perils of climate change and unfettered technology cast an unsettling shadow.

Harris received some of the most ecstatic reviews of his best-selling career when The Second Sleep was first published in Britain a couple of months ago. But he’s also discovering there’s no way of keeping the novel’s biggest secret under wraps, “I’ve found it almost impossible to talk about the book without revealing the basic premise of it.” Harris says in a tone of cheerful resignation. “The first people to receive early advance copies got the surprise — and started talking about it. As for anyone reading a review — well, I’m afraid they’re not getting that much of a surprise either.”

But Harris is wrong there. The Second Sleep, now published in Canada by Random House, surprises to the very end. Furthermore, as a highly inventive piece of dystopian fiction, it’s been winning comparisons with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Harris, adept at orchestrating fictional shocks, is flattered by the Atwood references and also by the comparisons with Planet of the Apes. But he insists that The Second Sleep shares a common thread with his earlier best-sellers. It’s a fascination with the workings of power.

“I see myself as a political novelist,” he says by phone from his Berkshire home. “That’s my territory — power, history, information, the interplay between them.”

He marked out that territory with his debut novel, Fatherland, a controversial bestseller that audaciously offered a slice of alternative history — a Britain under the yoke of Nazi rule. He has continued to do so with his more recent successes — Conclave with its examination of power politics in the Vatican; Munich, depicting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s last desperate attempt to prevent war with Hitler; the inner workings of the Roman empire in his acclaimed Cicero trilogy; the downfall of a charismatic prime minister, with a suspicious resemblance to Tony Blair, in The Ghost.

These concerns also thread their way through The Second Sleep, a genre-bending novel that has all the trappings of a 15th Century historical thriller except for one significant fact — this 15th Century is not part of our past. It exists in the future, part of a new calendar created after the collapse of 21st Century civilization — a collapse brought about, we are told, by God’s wrath against a satanic world.

A young cleric is on a reluctant horseback mission into a remote region of England’s southwest, his purpose to preside at the burial of a recently deceased village priest. But his life is dramatically altered when — rummaging through the old man’s effects — he discovers a glass cabinet full of forbidden artifacts from the past — including a battered smartphone. It’s at this moment that readers begin to realize that they have been dragged into a later 15th Century, albeit one in which roads and rails have been replaced by muddy trails and in which dismembered corpses again swing from gibbets.

“I had this idea for an excavation into the past, in an English village, that turns out to be an investigation of us, of our civilization,” Harris says.

The state is now under the control of an English church as paranoid about the unearthing of history as it is about the real-life menace in its north of enemies determined to turn the island into a caliphate. And it sees an existential threat in this young priest whose discoveries in a remote backwater are challenging his own certainties and driving him to commit the ultimate crime of delving into the past.

“I had this idea for an excavation into the past, in an English village, that turns out to be an investigation of us, of our civilization,” Harris says. “That was six or seven years ago, and I kept the idea on the back burner until I arrived at the right moment for it.”

He reckons the moment has arrived. Harris is delivering his new novel at a time of global warming, crumbling international alliances and growing distrust of uncontrolled technology. So what catastrophes have forced the world of this novel back into the Middle Ages? Harris screws up the tension as he keeps the answer tantalizingly out of reach.

“It is a political fantasy,” Harris says. “It has certain similarities to Fatherland in that it’s set in an imagined past that’s also a projected future. It reworks a lot of themes that interest me — that people don’t change and that what changes is technology and the societies around them. It’s also about power and the control of information. So oddly enough it’s a way of writing about the modern world — in particular an attempt to address technology and what it’s doing to us and the risks of it.”

Indeed, in a more indirect way, Harris is returning to themes examined in his 2011 novel, The Fear Index, a hair-raising thriller about an algorithm that goes rogue. In a world of failing software in new aircraft designs and of Canada’s continuing Phoenix pay fiasco, such themes acquire a disturbing relevance.

“I do worry that we are overly dependent on highly complex cyber technology with all the risks that go with it,” Harris says bluntly. “Our society is so artificial now, so unsustainable now without the realm of the internet that any interruption could have serious consequences.”

— Jamie Portman

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