’Tis the season for apocalyptic literature. With COVID-19 bearing down on the entire world, a presidential election becoming a Götterdämmerung, and a nation that, if you squint at it hard enough through the distorting lens of Twitter, appears to be coming apart at the seams, anxious minds might reach the conclusion that the end times are upon us.
Into this social and historical moment, two recent novels that can fill the wee hours spent pondering what the morrow might hold, The Second Sleep by Robert Harris and The End of October by Lawrence Wright. The latter book, published in April, has turned out to be a prophetic look at how a COVID-like pandemic might unfold. The former, which came out late last year, deals with a post-apocalyptic future set in 1468. Or is it?
Is that ambiguous enough for you? Let me say right here that these books cannot be effectively reviewed without engaging in massive spoilage. If you don’t like that, stop reading right here.
Still with me? Then let’s proceed into to two different yet hauntingly connected worlds created by talented, if very different, writers.
The Cambridge-educated Harris is one of those annoyingly good fiction writers who just doesn’t seem to know how to clear his literary throat. Every story starts so smartly and proceeds at such a pace that the reader is left startled and trying to catch up. My introduction to Harris’s writing—which is prolific, extending over 40 years—was Conclave (2016), which begins with the Vatican secretary of state racing to the papal apartments. The current pope has died unexpectedly leaving regrets and clerical time-bombs behind him. Harris’s more recent novel Munich opens in a London club as a senior Foreign Ministry official, and the other club members, listen in dead silence to Hitler’s radio address issuing the threats against Czechoslovakia that draw Neville Chamberlain into his ill-conceived efforts to avoid war. There’s no turning back in either.
The Second Sleep, atypically for Harris, buries its central conceit late in the third chapter. During the opening pages, we meet a Catholic clergyman, Father Fairfax, making his way by horseback to officiate the burial of an eccentric fellow priest in a remote village. We know where we are. Rain-pelted, pre-modern England, a land of subsistence farming overseen by feudal gentry. Modernity, the industrial revolution, and global trade are still well over the horizon.
That’s where we think we are until Fairfax gets a look at the strange archeological collection of the dead priest. This is not a book set in our past, but in our future following an obscure apocalypse that swept England, and presumably the world, resetting the clock of history. Fairfax is stunned at what he finds, and at that moment the novel achieves what every novel is supposed to and yet rarely does: draws us into the mind and sensations of the character in real-time. As Fairfax reels, we encounter the sickening realization that the modern, technological society in which we live has been destroyed along with those of us who lived in it. It is a neat literary trick.
The other feature of Harris’s writing is its studied ambiguity. He specializes in inconclusive morality tales. Good and evil are always present but telling one from the other can be an uncertain business. The Second Sleep evokes that notion in its title. In the pre-modern world, nighttime was determined not by clocks and electric lights but by the setting of the sun. There were candles and hearths, yes, but generally, when darkness fell, sleep soon followed. Especially during the shorter, winter days, this meant long nights during it was common for people to have a period of wakefulness in the early morning hours when they might work, make love, or write before a “second sleep” that carried them to dawn. The mysterious past apocalypse in the story is the first sleep. Father Fairfax and a few others are now “awake” to the possibilities of rediscovery and recovery, while a corrupt church and state are determined to prevent the resurrection of the technological society. If Fairfax is thwarted the stunted civilization will return to its “second sleep.”
It’s helpful to think about The End of October as a prequel to The Second Sleep, showing us the kind of pandemic disaster that might lay waste to modernity. Lawrence Wright is not primarily a novelist but an investigative journalist with the New Yorker; he is best known for his bestselling history of the lead up to the September 11 terrorist attacks, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Unlike that book, The End of October is fiction—but it is built on the same commitment to intensive research, this time into biology, government, geopolitics, and international health. The book shows how a tightly integrated world and emerging novel diseases could quickly turn toxic.
The main value to The End of October is not the elegance of its prose. Wright is an experienced, skilled writer, to be sure, but his narrative and dialogue is less of a draw than his considerable ability to assess and extrapolate from our current cultural, political, and international scene. It is truly uncanny the way his book forecasts how a crisis like COVID-19 would play out. The deadly—far more deadly than COVID—disease he describes emerges in Asia, where the feckless Indonesian health ministry is doing everything it can to cover it up. As viruses are wont to do, it hops a plane to Mecca at the height of the Hajj and is dispersed across the globe by religious pilgrims. National and international health agencies never really have a chance to quarantine the illness.
Bear in mind, reader, this was all researched and written before most of us had ever heard of city called Wuhan.
As the disease takes hold in the United States, a feckless president surrenders supervision of the pandemic to his vice president while beginning treatments with an untested prophylactic drug that, we come to understand, kills him. One of the most interesting portraits is of the national security advisor, a kind of female John Bolton who, in the face of the growing pandemic, is fixated on her long-term adversary, the president of Russia. In her mind, since the Russians don’t seem to be coming down with the disease at the same rate as the rest of the world they must have cooked the virus in a lab along with a vaccine. The advisor jams these speculations into her anti-Russian worldview and persuades the new president to unleash American bioweapons in retaliation. The world suffers now not from one plague but multiple, and the U.S. president is forced into the airborne command to fight a biowar. And the advisor, we learn, was wrong: The disease didn’t emerge from a lab but from a much more prosaic source—the carrion of long-dead animals exposed by the thawing permafrost of climate change.
What Wright is warning us about is not just emerging bio-threats but the problem of contingency, the unknown-unknowns that besiege pandemic responses. Is COVID droplet-transmitted or airborne? Are children at risk or not? Should we attempt to treat the virus or control symptoms like cytokine storms? Novel viruses are mysteries that take decades, not weeks or months, to understand fully and, as we’ve seen with COVID, many people die as our etiological knowledge solidifies.
We know disease threats are increasing. In fact, COVID-19, as bad as it is, is probably best understood as a dress rehearsal for “the big one.” Our public agencies and political leadership have been caught flatfooted by it, and the price tag for these failures has been high in human lives and economic losses. They are also a fraction of the cost of a different disease that might, like the 1918 influenza, target the young and healthy rather than the sick and elderly. Our failure to prepare for and deal with diseases more lethal than COVID, Wright is telling us, could be a prelude to the first sleep of Robert Harris.