Discoveries before The Second Sleep


Robert Harris, The Second Sleep, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

From $23 online. Kindle $AU 4.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Second Sleep is set several centuries into the future after the great collapse of civilisation. A powerful – and fundamentalist – church has taken power while England has returned to pre-industrial conditions: there are no cars, and therefore roads are poor. The fastest travel is horse-back.  Village life centres around small-scale horticulture, providing just enough for the villagers.

A young priest is sent to a tiny village in Exmoor to bury the parish priest who has died after decades in the same parish. He discovers a world of secrets, from the housekeeper’s relationship to the old priest, to the illegal search for evidence of pre-collapse civilisation.

Many of his discoveries take place between the first and second sleeps, as people have reverted to the pre-electric light habit of having a period of waking between two stretches of sleep. ‘The Second Sleep’ begins to take on more meanings as the novel progresses.

Robert Harris is known for his novels of Ancient Rome (Imperium, Lustrum, Pompeii) and of institutions under stress including the army and the church (An Officer and a Spy, Conclave).  He writes page-turners, and his writing is simple and clear. You feel the mud and slush of unpaved streets and the smell of animals sharing living space with humans.

The Second Sleep is a compelling novel of the new genre of cli-fi (climate science fiction). Itis a meditation on our world on the brink of great destruction, perhaps brought about by climate change, perhaps not, and our values of freedom and progress.

Harris makes no final judgement as to which is worse, our world or his dystopia, but The Second Sleep is an appeal to maintain an open society in which power is shared between citizens and not centralised in a power-hungry institution.

It is also a novel of finding love and the difficulty of holding onto love in a repressive society. After a slow start with the characters, I enjoyed the priest Fairfax, his Lady, Sarah Durston, and Captain Hancock.

Lessons from a personable robot


Simon Morden, Bright Morning Star, NewCon Press, 2019.

Kindle edition: $AU 8.75

Paperback: $24.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The cover image for Simon Morden’s Bright Morning Star rather spoils the mental picture I built up for the ‘Robot’ who is the main character of this speculative story.

An alien probe lands on earth and finds itself in the midst of humans fighting. The probe’s task is simply to investigate and report back to Mother (the spaceship in orbit). The probe is self-aware and begins to forensically examine the corpses of victims of a mass shooting.

It then realises that there is intelligent life on earth and decides to study this life-form more fully. It gradually becomes aware that the shooting is part of a proxy war between Russia and the USA. The name of the nation-state which first protects him is not given, but this reader gained the impression that it was a fictional version of Ukraine.

As the probe gains understanding of the ramifications of the war, it deduces that war is inefficient and should be replaced by peace and cooperation. The humans who fall under his influence begin to realise that without international cooperation, the human race will never succeed at space-faring and will tear itself apart.

Bright Morning Star is told entirely from the perspective of the ‘Robot’ and in its voice. Simon Morden has taken a risk in making a logic machine the main character in his novel, but ‘Robot’ learns to behave empathetically and forms attachments with different humans.

I gained the impression that ‘Robot’ was much less massive than the cover image: its emerging personality was writ large, not its physical attributes.

Bright Morning Star is a good read and its appeal to the best in humanity worth hearing again.

More than Human?


Martin Higgins, Human+,

Kindle E-Book $US 3.99, Paperback 230 pages (online) from $AUD 18.26

Reviewed by Ted Witham

This book and I did not start well together. The narrator initially sounded like science fiction’s clichéd young male narrator who is attempting to channel Raymond Chandler and whose only friend is the barman.  But within a few pages, I was surprised to realise that I was inside the head of a schizoid drug-user with heightened paranoia. I changed from groaning to admiring the writing.

David, the drug-user, turns out to be a select adept at psychological precognition – mind-reading. He has the ability to tune into people’s thoughts, moods and memories. A mystery organisation recruits him and offers to train his precognitive gifts. He befriends the trainers and discovers that his talents outshine theirs.

The organisation engineers a high-profile position for him, inventing a back-story with academic papers and university records. Lawrence, one of the trainers, seemingly deserts the organisation, and David is left to wonder whether being caught up in the world of high capitalism is the best use of his supra-human gifts.

To its credit, the book does not give a pat answer to this question, but leaves the reader with complex possibilities: with the help of nanotechnology, will human beings ever develop advanced communication abilities? Can capitalism deliver the most ethical future for humanity? Will there always be people left behind by human progress – will the poor always be with us despite all the promises of technology? Are reading and story-telling technologies by which we enter the thought-worlds and moods of other humans and transform ourselves into more than humans?

At the end of the book, I was surprised how much I had enjoyed it. I enjoyed the company of the first person narrator, I was intrigued with the bigger questions raised by his experience, and I continued to wonder where the hard science ended and the fiction begun. That’s a mark of good science fiction.

The book was professionally presented, so I did not have the common experience with E-books of being confronted by spelling and grammar clangers. The story kept me interested until the end, and it was altogether an enjoyable and worthwhile read.