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Book Nook: Lest Darkness Fall

Lest Darkness Fall, L Sprague de Camp.

Available from Amazon or elsewhere.

This is a series devoted to the review of a variety of AH books. There's nothing more complicated to the premise than that

Lest Darkness Fall, L Sprague de Camp

Reviewed by David Flin

This is one of the early classics of AH (published 1939, arguably the most important event in world history for that year), and an early example of the Hero Cast Back In Time sub-genre.

It’s a novel by L Sprague de Camp. Don’t expect characters that are more than two-dimensional plot devices. Don’t expect an understanding of military tactics (the author repeatedly – here and in other books – is under the impression that thrusting, as distinct from slashing, with a sword was a technique that was unknown prior to the Renaissance. Which makes one wonder anyone put a point on the swords of the period).

Look, it's got a pointy end. Why give it a pointy end if it's not going to be used?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

However, the story does give a vivid picture of 6th Century Rome, and is quite exceptional in giving a view into both the history of the period and the general life, and it also looks at the butterfly effect, with the central character introducing things which have gradually increasing impact. Not always in the way the central character might expect or want.

The basic premise of the book is that Martin Padway, an American archaeologist, is visiting Rome in 1938. There’s a thunderstorm, lightning cracks, and he finds himself transported to 535AD Rome. He was originally in room to study archaeological remains of the period he is transported to; it’s a solid explanation why Padway knows so much about the period he’s transported to. Once he has got used to the fact that he isn’t dreaming or delusional, he – like Mark Twain’s Yankee in Camelot – sets to work changing things and using his knowledge to improve things.

It’s a book with a lot of detail about 6th Century Rome. So much so that Harry Turtledove said that it inspired his interest in Byzantine Rome.

The book also inspired a number of novels in response. Two of the most notable being: The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass, by Frederick Pohl; and The Man Who Came Early, by Poul Anderson. Any book that inspires other famous authors to write a response indicates that the original is eminently readable.

As soon as Padway has recovered from his disorientation and accepted that he isn’t dreaming or delusional, he starts doing what makes this such a fun book; he starts improvising technology from what he knows and can find around him. De Camp was a historian of technology, and it shows. Padway doesn’t get everything right first time; he takes several attempts to make ink for newspapers, and he is never able to make gunpowder that does anything other than go fizz. The more you know about history and technology, the more you can see how clever the book is. It elevates the premise of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court to arguably the peak of accomplishment. It’s quite possibly de Camp’s best work.

Comment on the review here.


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