Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

In July 2003, George H. Armstrong emailed me, after reading belated review #016. He wrote a letter to Dani after reading the review below -- because he couldn't find Dani he then emailed it to me -- I think it interesting enough to post here (with George's permission).

Belated Reviews #16: "Lest Darkness Fall"
and L. Sprague de Camp

L. Sprague de Camp was a prolific author, but I'm only going to review one of his books at any length. For the most part, his books are enjoyable enough, but minor and unexceptional. (I'm ignoring the books coauthored with Fletcher Pratt, which I'll get to another time.) There are a bunch of light fantasies, typically with adjective-noun titles like "The Unbeheaded King", "The Reluctant Shaman", "The Varicose Varmint", and "The Dangling Participle". (Okay, I made up the last two.) There are a bunch of nothing-special adventure novels with thin patina of science fiction, which are placed on the low-tech planet Krishna, and which can typically be recognized by the presence of the letter 'Z' in the title (eg., "The Tower of Zanid", "The Hand of Zei".) Of his better novels, I have a fondness for "Rogue Queen" (**+), about a planet of humanoids with the social structure and reproductive methods of hive insects. But, by and large, de Camp's single-authored books are nothing special.

Is it fair to just dismiss an important author's corpus so lightly? I think so. The point of these reviews is to identify works of past decades which may be particularly worth reading. An attempt to give every author lengthy and balanced consideration would sabotage this effort. The fact remains that while there are a good number of de Camp books that I've enjoyed, the only one I'd seriously recommend to newer readers is "Lest Darkness Fall."

"Lest Darkness Fall" (***+), published in 1939, is a seminal alternate-history novel. It is the story of Martin Padway, an modern archeologist who finds himself in the Rome of 535 AD. This presents him with three problems. Theshort-term problem is that of making a living. He has a bit of money (1939 being back in the days when people typically had some silver in their pockets), borrows more, and proceeds to introduce friends, Romans, and countrymen to modern amenities such as brandy and newspapers.

The medium-term problem is that he knows, from history, that Justinian is about to invade Italy, in an attempt to reunite the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. The attempt is foredoomed, but there won't be much left of Italy by the time it's done. This ties into the long-term problem, which is that the Dark Ages are descending upon Europe, and Padway would dearly like to prevent those wasted centuries. (Fashions in the teaching of history have changed since this book was written, and the Middle Ages are no longer referred to as 'Dark'. They were a period of considerable social, techno-logical, and artistic change. The modern reader may accept this, and still enjoy Padway's attempts to avoid the accompanying unpleasantness.) Keeping Belisarius at bay and darkness from falling requires quick footwork, and by the time a year or so has passed, Martin Padway is Martinus Paduei, quaestor (to Thiudahad, King of the Ostrogoths), inventor, publisher, and the leading candidate for "most likely to be assassinated in 537."

I described the book as 'seminal', an adjective which should be used with caution. Obviously the book owes a tremendous debt to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", in which another American finds himself a few decades away from Padway, and a bit to the north-west. By the time of de Camp's novel, time travel had been used extensively, both within the genre and in the mainstream. (For anyone interested in reading up on this, the introduction to my copy of "Portrait of Jenny" recommends the article "Space-Time in Literary Form", by Margaret Walters, in the June 1942 issue of Tomorrow magazine.)

"Lest Darkness Fall" gave the subgenre a form it pretty much retains half a century later. Historical accuracy is valued, and historical characters, events, and technologies lend verisimilitude to the narrative.(The certainty that the island will explode on a particular date, or the barbarians will invade or the plague will strike also serves to lend a particularly effective tension to the narrative.)

Another characteristic, at odds with most of the earlier literature, is the possibility of real change. As long as both past and present are set in stone, time-travel stories tend to be tragedies, with the only difference the traveller can make being those too small for history to notice -- the bullet hole in the armor, the grave of the maid whose lover never returned, the traveller's adoption of a predetermined historical role, etc. If history can be changed, or a new history can be created, a broader and more satisfying range of possibilities is open.

Novels like "Lest Darkness Fall" are still a science fiction staple. The recent "Crosstime Engineer" series, by Frankowski, to take a typical example, is fairly faithful to de Camp's pattern. Like Padway, Conrad must gain the support of the nobility, keep the clergy molified, and introduce enough technical and social change to achieve his goals -- the last made easier for Conrad by the happy circumstance of his having swallowed a copy of "How Things Work" as a child.

LDF is driven less by technology and more by the protagonist's sheer gall, and said protagonist's achievements are less of a triumphal progress and more of the tiger-by-the-tail variety, but that's part of what makes the book fun to read. And it is fun to read.


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Dani Zweig