Apocalypse could return us to Middle Ages

Prophetic: Saturation bombing (HG Wells, 1933). Surveillance society (Orwell, 1949). Dark ages (Harris, 2019).

Is it wrong to scare people with visions of doom? Britain’s best thriller-writer, Robert Harris, warns that our hyper-advanced civilisation could be set back 500 years by a sudden catastrophe.

You wake first thing in the morning and reach for your mobile phone.

But it won’t connect to the internet. Nor will your laptop, or your home computer.

On your way to work, you realise that you have hardly any cash so you stop to join the queue at an ATM. Someone announces that all cash machines have ceased to function.

By the time you reach the nearest Waitrose, you discover the aisles are crowded. The checkouts aren’t operating. Some people, laden with whatever they can carry, are trying to leave without paying.

With apologies to Robert Harris for mangling his prose, this is the nightmare behind his latest novel — sure, eventually, to be a blockbuster movie and get everyone talking.

In The Second Sleep, a devastating collapse has taken place. Our dazzling civilisation of endless choice, information, entertainment and (increasingly) health has turned to dust.

In the ruins, survivors begin again by resetting the clock to 666 AD, the mystical Year of the Beast. The action is set in 1468. A young cleric is sent to perform a country funeral.

There, he discovers a cabinet full of illegal artefacts. Among them is a palm-sized object bearing “the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy – an apple with a bite taken out of it”.

Harris’s story rests partly on the ideas of Lewis Dartnell, an academic whose book, The Knowledge, envisages how difficult it would be to reboot society after a prolonged breakdown.

“Our survival skills have atrophied to the point that much of humanity would be incapable of sustaining itself if the life-support system of modern civilisation failed,” Dartnell writes.

Harris believes that because so much of our basic knowledge has migrated from the terrestrial world to the cloud, we are uniquely vulnerable to attack.

“Without a shot being fired or a bomb dropped, our society could be plunged into anarchy far more destructive than anything seen in wartime.”

Every civilisation thinks it has reached the pinnacle of development. But look at the vast Mayan empire which collapsed in a few decades. Or the Roman empire which, after 500 years, crumbled like a sandcastle in the rain.

At least they left behind wonderful ruins. What would ours be? “Great drifts of plastic — shopping bags, straws, nappies, Styrofoam cups,” says Harris.

Is it wrong to scare the public with these thoughts?

Crying wolf?

Of course, it is irresponsible. No wonder we are so wracked with anxiety. This simply isn’t going to happen. It is extremely simplistic to theorise about an implosion of civilisation.

For Harris, however true that may be, it is no reason to hold back. Through imagination, writers can explore the “less comforting” ideas and visions. That is their function.

You Decide

  1. Would it be terrible to live in the Middle Ages?
  2. In all of recorded history, do we live in the best of times right now?


  1. Write an imaginary diary entry for a day like the one in the story in which the internet is down, power is cut off, the shops are running empty…
  2. You are transported to 1468. You stumble across an iPhone. Write a short story based on this idea. (This assumes you have not read Robert Harris’s new book yet!)

Some People Say...

“Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), US novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Foreign powers, such as Russia, are already actively interfering not just in our elections but in the very basis of our democratic polity: commonly agreed truth. Cyberwar units are now maintained by all major powers.
What do we not know?
Clearly, any idea of what a catastrophic collapse of modern civilisation looks like is very much in the realms of imagination. We can’t really compare ourselves to the Mayans or Romans. Too much has changed. But imagination can be scarily accurate. And we know what it is like when the internet goes down at work or at school!

Word Watch

Robert Harris
Former journalist and BBC television reporter. Although he began his career in non-fiction, his fame rests upon his works of historical fiction. Beginning with the best-seller Fatherland, Harris focused on events surrounding the World War Two, followed by works set in ancient Rome.
Destroying by tearing up or crushing.
Written or spoken language.
Year of the Beast
The “number of the beast” is a term in the Book of Revelation in The Bible associated with the Beast of Revelation in chapter 13, line 18. In most manuscripts of the New Testament and in English translations, the number of the beast is 666.
Excessive pride or self-confidence.
Insulting towards something thought sacred or religious.
Lewis Dartnell
Astrobiologist, author, presenter and Professor of Science Communication at the University of Westminster.
Wasted away.
A state of disorder, without government.
The peak, height.
An ancient civilisation that stretched throughout much of Central America, reaching its peak during the first millennium AD.
Lasting more than 500 years, the Roman Empire was, at its peak, the most extensive political and social structure in all of western civilisation. It has shaped almost every aspect of our western culture, and its influence can still be felt strongly to this very day.


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