April 13, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
“Apocalypse now,” past or coming, is a favourite theme with writers. Robert Harris is the latest to touch on it. He is a highly intelligent, best-selling novelist whose successes started with Fatherland and its story of a Germany undefeated in the Second World War. Harris describes the handsome dwelling he bought on the proceeds as ‘The House that Hitler built’. Archangel has the son of Stalin living in a forest—‘the forest’ is the symbol of darkness that recurs in his novels. It is the antithesis of civilization. The Ghost Writer features an ex-prime minister, clearly modelled on Tony Blair, who is in the end assassinated. Harris expected a writ to be served on him—you can read the reasons on p.100–but it never happened. The subject of Enigma is the cracking of the German code; Pompeii is the run-up to the catastrophe itself; and An Officer and a Spy deals with the Dreyfus affair. His trilogy about Cicero made Harris a hero in Arpinum, his subject’s birthplace now much visited by tourists. All his novels are first-class reads and I recommend them highly.
The Second Sleep was published on September 5th 2019. The exact date matters. The book is a work of fiction set 800 years into the future following an apocalypse, the systemic collapse of civilization known as The Apocalypse. The nature and cause of this catastrophe is never explained, but Harris inserts some defining clues into his narrative.
A document from the pre-apocalypse period and relating to a meeting dated 22 March 2022 has been preserved in The Proceedings and Papers of the Society of Antiquaries. A report from a member includes this:
‘We have broadly identified six possible catastrophic scenarios that fundamentally threaten the existence of our advanced science-based way of life:
1. Climate change
2. A nuclear exchange
3. A super-volcano eruption, leading to rapidly accelerated climate change.
4. An asteroid strike, also causing accelerated climate change
5. A general failure of computer technology due either to cyber warfare, an uncontrollable virus, or solar activity
6. A pandemic resistance to antibiotics’
Harris has covered his bases pretty well. The pandemic has now arrived, some three months after the sixth of his published possibilities became a global reality. You could regard this as good guessing, which is no more than epidemiologists were doing before Covid-19 struck. But a more sinister prophecy comes in a single page (p.70). Fairfax, the priest, has been questioning a villager:
‘”My brothers has all been took by the army, sir, to fight the Northern Caliphate.” Fairfax nodded encouragingly. “Brave lads, I’m sure.” That was a war that had gone on all his life—and for centuries beforehand, or so it was said—ever present but oddly distant, its occasional lulls punctuated by lurid reports of horrible atrocities that aroused a fervour of public outrage and set the whole thing off again. Mostly it involved dreary garrison duty in some isolated Yorkshire moorland outpost. But the regular punitive raids to keep the Islamist enclave in check always carried with them the risk of capture and beheading, which the Government took care to publicise.’
That is one man’s guess at the future, and it is not elaborated. Harris is a novelist and will not take the stand to affirm his belief in his fiction’s prophecy. The imagery is that of late-imperialist action against native Islamist challengers like the Mahdi in the Sudan or the FLN in Algeria. But he is intelligent and well-informed enough to propose the Northern Caliphate as a serious and credible prospect in Britain’s future. I have not read a single review that mentions the Northern Caliphate, a subject tabu even in fiction. It jars with the Government’s ‘One Nation’ ideal, though a case for it could easily be made. The reader is left with a nagging question. Does the Northern Caliphate exist already in embryo?