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Lyon Sprague de Camp

Lest Darkness Fall
Prime Press, 1949


Originally written for the magazine Unknown, December 1939, the story was later expanded into bookform and published by Holt in 1941. It is thus 60 years old and was written when it was politically correct to be a pinko and a racist - simultaneously. It is one of the first alternate history stories and still in my opinion the best and certainly the most entertaining. Harry Harrison's Hammer and the Cross threedecker is the only real competition as alternate history and Heinlein's Double Star is its only (science fiction/fantasy) competition as entertainment. It was based on the best available knowledge of the time, trust de Camp to do his homework, but 60 years later we know a lot more. Still it wears its years lightly and you should not let the story's gray hairs hold you back from reading it. The basic plot for such a novel is fairly simple: you dump somebody into the middle of Rome shortly before the emperor Justinian sends an army to reconquer Italy from the Visigoths. The hero introduces all sorts of inventions, gets involved in the war, conquers all and in the end has no problems except the need for choosing between the Roman and the Visigoth heroine. Since de Camp more or less established the genre, he was unaware of all this, so the above is not quite what happens in the novel. First we are introduced to the hero, Martin Padway, and also to the time travel theory de Camp uses in the story. To keep us from getting bored (explaining bogus science is always a major problem for science fiction authors), the dissertation happens while Padway is being driven in an automobile by a very Italian driver on Roman streets with Italian traffic all around. After Padway has survived and escaped, he gets hit by lightning (in later years he would have been hit by something atomic and still later he would have had a computer accident) and next thing he is in Rome AD 535. A bit disconcerting that. OK, to succeed, or merely to survive, he needs a little help from The Author and therefore he gets it. Padway is an archaeologist, which means that it is entirely possible that he has a working knowledge of Latin and that he knows how to use his hands. Also he may have an extensive knowledge of the history of technology. And so he is and can do all those things. He will have to land on his feet, that is, get lodging immediately so that he will not be robbed the first night sleeping in the street. Also it won't do if he immediately gets floored by germs and such. He succeeds because coins before the second world war and for many years after had silver and copper in them. So he converts his stock into local cash and is thus able to rent a room and buy a meal or three. The latter really should have given him overactive bowels in spite of Rome's (also then) good water supply, but happily The Author makes him immune, perhaps from ignorance or perhaps from necessity. After all, the action must not be slowed down for that is not good for sales. The immediate needs having been attended to, Padway decides to start a business on credit. Now, if I was a Roman banker in those days and some foreign idiot suggested that I maltreat bad wine to maltreat good customers, I would have been quite stern with him. Wine here, then copper tubes (how will the fellow make them? can he?) and then some stuff that may or may not be drinkable, will it be saleable? If so, will there be a repeat trade ? But luck or rather The Author is with Padway, the banker is a risk taker, and after many vicissitudes, some of them technological, some not, he succeeeds. Since The Author MUST interfere this heavily, why does he not let the hero produce soap? They may have had some kind of soap then, but it was not till the 18th century that soap production became a reliable process, and Padway may easily have known it. OK, The Author did not know he was making one of the best yarns of its kind and that he therefore should do some extra thinking. We must make allowances. Padway makes his way somehow, encountering the Catholic Church, influenza and doctors straight out of Moliere. He invents printing (doable, but it would certainly have taken him more time) and introduces the semaphor telegraph (he has to disguise it as a scam since he is dealing with the then City Hall) and then he gets involved with politics. Or rather politics in the guise of a very unedifying Visigoth royal involve him. Padway would have preferred to go to Ravenna and do his stuff there, Ravenna being the only town that never got sacked in those wars, but no, the least unsafe course of action is to get involved in bleeding history, so he does. The novel's alternate history theory is that it is tough to change history, changing a bit here does not change everything everywhere, and so Padway can use his historical knowledge for a while to his own advantage and he does . The rest of the novel has him hopping around defeating armies and unpleasant Visigoth princes and all this appears very realistic. At the end of the novel he is for the time being the winner, but, but, but, he does not get either heroine nor does he get the kingdom. The Visigoth princess gets married to someone else for reasons of health, and the Roman heroine drops him because he is a liberator of slaves. It entirely too easy to point out the weaknesses of the book. 50 years of everybody's historical research will outdate most assumptions of any book. De Camp believes stirrups existed in the West then. They did not. And since the hero in any case has to be helped by The Author, The Author really should have issued him a better 5 year plan. But have a heart dear readers, this was written 60 years before now. - Jens Guld 11/99

- Jens Guld, 11/1/1999

This novel was one of the first by De Camp, who later wrote a number of science-fiction and Conan novels as well as non-fiction books. I think I must start by mentioning a widespread misperception about this novel. From summaries, book covers and reviews it seems that most people think that this is a novel about barbarian invasions, the fall of the Roman Empire and the main character's attempts to prevent them and "darkness". I can only attribute this misperception to a general impression that the collapse of imperial government of Rome immediately resulted in a Dark Age. That was indeed the case in Britain, but not in the whole empire. The "darkness" the book refers to was actually brought upon Italy as a consequence of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian's short-lived re-conquest of the peninsula, 60 years after the Western Empire's fall. The concept of "darkness" being actually caused by an imperial army, conquering an Italy that was rather well off under Gothic barbarians, turns that conventional picture on its head and is apparently difficult to accept - which is all the more reason to recommend this excellent novel. Apparently inspired by Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, De Camp has an American archeologist in Rome, Martin Padway, mysteriously transported by a bolt of lightning to the Rome of 535 AD. That is the only overtly fantastic episode in the book; having put Padway in the past, De Camp makes events follow from there in a plausible and even realist way. Fluent in both Latin and Italian, Padway adapts rather quickly and survives at first by teaching Arabic arithmetic, later by distilling wine into brandy, and other businesses. De Camp paints a vivid portrait of Italy under Gothic rule, civilized, peaceful and fairly prosperous, particularly under King Theoderic. Against his will, Padway finds himself drawn ever more deeply into Italian politics, in upheaval since Theoderic's death, until he becomes the chief force behind the Gothic resistance against the armies of Justinian, bent on re-establishing direct imperial rule over Italy. Padway knows that the war will ruin Italy, jeopardizing the survival of classic civilization in Western Europe - that is, bringing the "darkness". As far as I can tell, De Camp follows historical events very closely until, of course, Padway's presence changes them; but it's hard to spot precisely when history changes if you're not very familiar with the period. Although De Camp was careful to present a realistic portrait of the period, as well as a plausible alternate history, the tone of the novel isn't too serious. Padway is an intellectual, more at ease in an university, who finds himself in the role of businessman, politician, man of action and strategist, finding those roles uncomfortable in an endearing way. Most historical characters, especially Belisarius, are shown in a sympathetic manner, with the exception of Justinian, who remains an unseen villain. Throughout, De Camp shows a rather good-humored tolerance towards mankind. Besides being a good introduction to a generally neglected and misunderstood period, Lest Darkness Fall is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, the kind that leaves you in a far better mood after reading it, only wishing it were longer. I couldn't recommend it more. - Peter Bartl 11/99

- Peter Bartl, 11/1/1999

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