8 Sep 2019

Robert Harris: The Second Sleep

From Sunday Morning, 10:08 am on 8 September 2019

“All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is.” That is the ultimate warning from best-selling author Robert Harris’ latest novel that fictionalises the dangers that await humanity.

The Second Sleep has all the trappings of a historical novel, and it’s titled after the noted pre-industrial European habit of having two bouts of sleep and waking up in between to complete tasks or socialise.

Readers might be fooled into thinking it’s set in the 15th Century as the book also opens with a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arriving in a remote Exmoor village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor.

Best-selling author Robert Harris and the cover of his latest novel The Second Sleep.

Best-selling author Robert Harris and the cover of his latest novel The Second Sleep. Photo: Penguin Books. Supplied

“Everything is by candlelight and he’s travelling on horseback … so you feel you’re in that [15th Century] world, but you gradually become aware that this isn’t the 15th Century at all, it’s the 24th Century and our civilisation has gone,” Harris told Jim Mora.

“So my characters are in the position of people [like those] in Britain centuries back from ours who were looking at the Roman ruins and these people are looking at our ruins and it was a way really of writing about the modern world.”

The book is something of a cautionary tale to people about how reliant we’ve become on technology and what chaos would ensue if it got out of control, he says.

“We live such artificial lives that skills have deserted us in a generation or two … This has happened with incredible speed, relatively speaking 30 years or so, and I worry that we are not aware of how easily something could go wrong, and this is not just me imagining this.

“I did actually have conversation with a very senior person in British Intelligence who said their number one problem is cyber with Russians and Chinese and there are tit-for-tat exchanges. So it’s easy to imagine this getting out of hand, to that extent the book is a warning, I think we all ought to be aware of it.”

Online crime scene with a finger print left on backlit keyboard with Chinese flag on it

Photo: 123rf

In fact, Harris was inspired to write the book by events in Britain that highlighted just how badly reliant we’ve become on technological advancements in our day-to-day lives.

“One is the tanker driver strike which occurred in the year 2000, and I live in the country. All of a sudden it become impossible to travel around, because a tiny number of drivers were simply not delivering the fuel, and there were shortages in the shops, huge queues in the petrol stations, and suddenly you realise that life is quite fragile that it could easily be interrupted.

“And then at the time of the financial crisis in 2008, there were fears that the ATM systems would run out of money because the banks were going down and you wouldn’t have been able to get hold of any of your wealth and if you think about it, we really just have imaginary wealth.

“We’re completely dependent on such simple things as folding money, that’s going to be very hard to get hold of if, God forbid, there was some sort of cyber interruption.”

Technology has also largely been driving a phenomenon of change that occurs every century when everything is shaken up after a period of peace and order, Harris says.

“This force has been unleashed, which we carry around with us on our phones and so on, and neither we as human beings nor our institutions are able to cope with this massive amount of information and instant communication, and it’s unsettling us, it’s unsettling us as people and it’s unsettling the institutions of government and order that we’ve grown up with.”

And technology isn’t the only ‘enemy’, but civilisations themselves overestimate their invincibility, but as history shows they can be wiped out in less time than it took for them to become dominant, Harris says.

“The Mayan civilisation in Central America which at its peak had 40 cities with a population of several million seems to have vanished after being dominant for several centuries within a couple of decades. The Roman empire obviously took longer to go but it did go in the end.”

Temple of the Count, Palenque Archaeological Park, Mexico.

Robert Harris says his characters look at the ruins of our modern world in the same way we look at ruins of previous civilisations.  Photo: AFP / Richard Maschmeyer

Often people in the modern world are under the impression that we are so far from the past of the times of the Roman empires and such, Harris says.

In his novel with its past-turned-future twist, Harris sheds light on how that isn’t necessarily true and how we’ve come to resemble an era typical of pre-catastrophic events.

“One of the themes of my books is that people don’t really change, that Cicero and the Roman politicians are not that dissimilar to ours and this was another way of examining that idea.

“I think if you wanted to find an era that slightly resembles that it’s 1912 or 1913 - a long period of peace, relative prosperity, greater learning and literacy, social ferment, women’s rights issues, terrorism.

“[It’s] sort of like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm, people are waiting for something to happen, the dread it but at the same time they want something to occur. Well it feels that something is underway and who knows what it’ll be.”

Harris’ manipulation of time in his novels, between the past that could have been and the future that might be, is sparked by his own interest in politics as a former journalist and reporter. When asked previously about the future of Britain, he quite accurately predicted the current Brexit climate that the country is facing now.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators march from Britain's Houses of Parliament to Downing Street in protest at Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement that Parliament will be suspended for more than a month.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement that Parliament will be suspended for more than a month.  Photo: AFP

It’s also no coincidence that the politicians coming to the fore are the “disruptors” considering it’s become harder for ordinary people to feel represented and identify with the elite, he says.

“They [the disruptors] say outrageous and everyone thinks ‘well, that must be the end of them’ … and actually people are hungry for something that feels authentic even if it’s mildly crazy, because we all got so sick of seeing these people just trying to avoid questions and just coming up with the same bland formulas.

“We may look back with nostalgia to the days of those boring people incidentally, as God knows where these colourful characters are leading us.”

Robert Harris is the author of 12 bestselling novels, the most recent being Munich. Several of his books have been filmed, including The Ghost.