We’re all just a few days from disaster, warns Robert Harris, the best-selling writer whose latest thriller, The Second Sleep, imagines a very real apocalypse. ‘If the electricity went for some reason, everything else would go too: sewage, transport, medicine, the internet, absolutely everything. There would be blind panic and a breakdown in law and order. The alarming thing is, it can happen very quickly: two or three days of that and the supermarket shelves would be empty, there would be people stranded all over the place.’
Harris made his name with an alternative history, Fatherland, describing a defeated Britain under Nazi control, but now he’s thinking about our future, and the catastrophe he honestly believes we may all be facing. ‘I feel there’s a strong sense now of what it might have been like just before the First World War. A long period of order, relative prosperity, then just a feeling that the whole species was gearing up for a big convulsion.’
The Second Sleep seems at first to be set in the distant past, in which ragged peasants barely survive by working the land, plagued by death and haunted by superstition. But a chance discovery reveals – to the reader’s horror – that this is actually a vision of our future. It is the year 1468 but the calendar has been reset after a catastrophic event, although nobody can remember what it was.
‘In those circumstances, people wouldn’t know,’ says Harris, 62, when we meet at The Langham hotel in London. His novels are always meticulously researched, so what he says can be taken seriously and is alarming. ‘If our phones stopped working and the BBC stopped broadcasting, we’d all be stumbling around in the dark. If an authoritarian regime was in power, we would be kept in ignorance as to what had happened.’
His brilliant, gripping novel actually lists six ways in which the apocalypse could come: nuclear war, climate change, a volcanic eruption, an asteroid strike, a disease resistant to antibiotics and a total breakdown in computer technology. It’s the last one he actually believes will send us back to the Dark Ages.
‘I don’t think what’s coming will be like what’s happened in the past. It won’t be a war like the Luftwaffe coming over London. It won’t even be nuclear bombs. It’s far more likely to be cyber warfare. Our lives are over-dependent on the internet and unsustainable.’
Harris is a former BBC journalist who wrote about politics before writing his first novel, Fatherland, in 1992, which was made into a film. The next one, Enigma, starred Kate Winslet. Daniel Craig was in the television series of the next book, Archangel, about modern Russia. Since then Harris has written stories set in the Vatican, the City of London, 19th-century France and a trilogy based around the ancient Roman politician Cicero. Start to read them and a theme emerges. ‘I’m interested in collapses and when things go wrong with a society, whether it’s Nazi Germany or Ancient Rome. The veneer of order cracks, then chaos begins.’
The idea of writing about the future came from looking back, he says. ‘I like reading scholarly works that try to piece together what ancient civilisations were like. That made me think: I wonder what people will make of our society a thousand years from now? What might happen to us and what would be left of us? So I wrote The Second Sleep. Every society thinks it’s going to last for ever. None has ever done so, that I’m aware of.’
Harris has sold millions of copies of his books and is said to be worth more than £20 million, so would his wealth protect him from an apocalypse? ‘No, I would be hopeless. I live in the country and on the river and we do grow vegetables and we do have a wood-burning stove, so to that extent I’d be better off, but in practical terms I’m virtually hopeless. That’s why I’m a writer.’