During the course of his career Harris has perfected the art of creating tension within a story to which we already know the ending ... In The Second Sleep he turns the tables: this time we do not know the beginning ... The stage seems set for a classic Harris thriller, the lowly functionary intent on challenging the entrenched interests of a secretive and ruthless state. Instead The Second Sleep develops into something more contemplative: an exploration of a world that is both unfamiliar and as old as time, and of the consequences of our flagrant disregard for the existential perils of our own era. A convincingly imagined future world requires a steady accretion of small, telling details and there are sections in Harris’s novel that feel frustratingly inconsistent or approximate. But if his dystopia lacks the political and social coherence of, say, Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, he has contrived in The Second Sleep to do something rather brilliant and new. He has put us at the heart of the mystery. Whatever disaster has struck the world it has struck because of us, our greed and ambition, our arrogance. We are all responsible. As Fairfax edges closer to the truth, the reader is left with at least as many questions as answers, and most of those questions are directed at ourselves.
The Second Sleep won’t seem entirely new to Harris fans. Its plot, at times, strongly resembles Fatherland, which also hinged on its protagonist uncovering dangerous repressed truths about the past. But this sense of familiarity doesn’t matter. When Harris is at his best — and here he is — he writes with a skill and ingenuity that few other novelists can match. In this case, the usual page-turning pleasures are joined by something else: a sense that, through his historical-futuristic setting, Harris has found a unique vantage point to comment on the present. At first, he seems to be asking too much of his readers. That our civilisation could collapse seems entirely plausible, but would all its accumulated knowhow vanish with it? And would society then revert to something so closely resembling the Middle Ages? Harris’s cleverness is to make this scenario believable ... It is positively alarming, the ease with which Harris conjures up a future in which our virtual world, powered by a shadowy force known as electricity, comes to seem like the definition of hubris. This is a novel that not only makes you smile at its author’s brilliance, but induces a shiver of dread at how real it all seems.
As a novelist, Robert Harris has a gift of immersing readers in an unfamiliar milieu, and thrilling them with the subsequent emotional, physical and ethical challenges faced by the protagonist as he (and it is always he) navigates mounting obstacles to a supposedly routine task — and, in the process, unearths unexpected truths ... Harris seems to be saying that churches, with their enduring stone buildings, would make natural nexus points for the survivors. And this is where readers familiar with ruined-earth novels and their rigorous logical extrapolation might begin to have difficulties ... why, of the vast multicultural population of pre-apocalyptic Britain, only straight, white, able-bodied people appear to have survived ... there is a surprising lack of narrative tension, the internal inconsistencies are confounding and we have guessed the denouement long before it arrives. In the end, even Harris seems to give up, and all fades to black in a shower of cold, wet dirt.
Harris is a fluid writer who expertly sets the scene and then turns the screw bit by bit to build tension. The book subtly explores themes of faith, the risks of technology and the power of the state to control knowledge. There are engaging characters ... the end of the book seems kind of abrupt after some 300 pages of patient, methodical buildup. The villain gives a monologue that ties up some loose ends and then the book seems to just stop suddenly. It feels like a roller coaster ride that ends before that last big plunge.
Harris’s bleak imagined world issues a clarion call to the present, urging us to recognise the value of progress, the importance of woolly concepts like liberalism and the rule of law, and all the other ideals we’ve spent generations fighting for yet seem prepared to sacrifice on the altar of populism. For make no mistake, this novel may be set in a Wessex that’s at once futuristic and quasi-medieval, but it’s very much about the here and now, about Trump and Brexit and the Govian rejection of experts.... Harris is a master of plotting and, in elegant, understated third-person prose, he ratchets the tension ever upwards ... As Harris’s plot moves towards its pleasingly bombastic ending, Fairfax’s faith is put to the test. The swiftness with which the priest overthrows his worldview feels slightly hurried, but then this is nothing if not a page-turner.
Harris’s premise is not original, of course. It has been used before in science fiction, most notably in Walter M Miller’s cult classic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). However, Harris is not a writer of science fiction. He is working in a very different tradition, that of the British adventure story, which dates back to John Buchan and, arguably, to late-Victorian works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle. Novels in this tradition are often better written and more interesting than the overtly 'literary' fiction of their day ... That is certainly the case with The Second Sleep. On one level, it is a thoroughly absorbing, page-turning narrative in which the author, with his customary storytelling skills, pulls us ever deeper into the imaginative world he has created. On another, it poses challenging questions about the meaning of the past, the idea of progress and the stability of civilisation. It is a fine addition to Harris’s diverse body of work.
... a pleasingly genre-bending novel ... the novel's premise could have been hokey, but Harris doesn't rely too heavily on references to our present. Instead, through Fairfax's shifting beliefs about the past causing changes to his present, Harris makes a more subtle point — both a dire warning and a somewhat hopeful possibility.
Harris’ genre-bending thriller takes on new life, and dives into an unthinkable, wild exploration of religion and end-of-the-world prophecy . . . and all of that takes place within the first fifty pages ... While different than anything he’s ever written, The Second Sleep is more on par with Harris’ Munich or An Officer and a Spy, not so much in plot similarities, but rather in overall quality. Whereas books like Conclave and Fatherland were daring—but ultimately lacked punch and missed the mark—Harris’ latest is another risky attempt. Thankfully, this one lands squarely, and those who read it will find themselves thinking and talking about it long after turning the final page ... Harris’ most daring novel to date—the payoff being a captivating, enthralling thriller that’s unlike anything else you’ll find sitting on store shelves . . . and the less you know about this one going into it, the more you’ll enjoy the many surprises waiting just head.
A master of slow-burn revelation, Mr. Harris gradually discloses the nature of the disaster that has pushed England, and the planet, back to an epoch of homespun cloth, packhorse transport and theocratic law. Neither nuclear war nor extreme climate change—the drivers of so many dystopian novels—have triggered this downfall ... Mr. Harris’s portrait of a narrow, becalmed social order has more in common with the vision of, say, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than the more florid dystopian imagination of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ... Mr. Harris drip-feeds us tantalizing nuggets of information on two levels ... Mr. Harris cleverly portrays a society whose slow recovery from a century-long 'Dark Age' of chaos has 'stalled at the point civilisation had reached two centuries before disaster struck' ... Mr. Harris’s final, galloping pages have the almost cartoonish exuberance of a neo-medieval Indiana Jones adventure. Yet The Second Sleep, a novel as rich in ideas as it is in suspense, leaves us with gnawing questions.
Robert Harris has a wonderful ability to make the minute circumstances of life in any era not only immediately believable but compelling in themselves. He has pulled off this feat so many times now it’s easy to take it for granted — but it’s a rare accomplishment and plays a key part in making his novels so gripping and enjoyable ... Harris is obviously tickled by the idea that we are becoming dangerously dependent on our devices — but he teasingly keeps this back-story fragmentary, while taking us close-up into Fairfax’s struggle to comprehend and survive the mess he has found himself in. The result is a truly surprising future-history thriller. Fabulous, really.
... a jumble of violence, treachery and improbability. Though inoculated with conspiracy, the novel, Harris’ 13th, is his least diabolically savvy; the conceit upon which it is based is shopworn, while its plot, after delivering one nicely evil surprise, finally gives up and ends with a thunk.
Harris' novels are always extremely readable, but also provide underlying reflections on contemporary issues. His latest novel, The Second Sleep, is no different in those regards ... Harris's conclusion, after such intriguing scene setting, is somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, The Second Sleep is a riveting read and, hopefully, it will encourage mainstream readers to find the numerous excellent SF dystopian futures.