Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : letter

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

George H. Armstrong

P.O. Box 1870 Virden, Manitoba, Canada R0M 2C0

28 June, 2003

Dani Zweig, dani @netcom.com

Hi, Dani!

Have just read your review on L. Sprague de Camp's "Lest Darkness Fall" on the Internet and, as I have just finished the book itself (for the umpteenth time: great story), felt that I ought to bash out a few lines in reply.

I quite agree with the idea of doing much-belated reviews of significant sci-fi books, the ones which have some real staying power, but I can't quite dismiss the bulk of de Camp's work quite as quickly as you do. Granted, much of de Camp's work consisted of basic "escape fiction", but what many people of today have trouble with is a problem: WHY was simple "escape fiction" so very popular? After all, folks were living in a pretty good world: a pint still was ninepence, half the world's shipping still was British, the Nips had been hammered out pretty flat, the streets were utterly crawling with '55 Chevvies, the dollar still was a chunk of silver that weighed damned near a Troy ounce and Viet-Nam was a place on the map that nobody had heard of.

I'll give you a hint. A couple of years ago, I was in Calgary, phoning a guy who had a good Hasselblad outfit for sale. He was British, I'm a Canuck.... but we're both photographers. I'm also a journalist and a few other things, my degrees are in history, but that's all by the boards. We talked cameras for a while. I wasn't in a buying mood (or budget) especially for Hassies, which run over a grand for the frame alone, but I was doing the call for a friend. After half an hour of yakking, during which we established that we grew up during the same period, right out of the blue, he asked me, "Do you still have nightmares about it?"

Note that he didn't say, "Do you HAVE nightmares,"....... he said, "Do you STILL have nightmares........". What "it" was, Dani, was the so-called Cold War. The books might call it the Cold War, but there were lots and lots of times that it looked to be heating up right properly. I remember joining the Militia here (which the Yanks would call the National Guard, the Brits call the Territorials) at the ripe old age of 18, at one of those quiet periods in the Cold War. Six days later, Kennedy told that nice Mr. Khrushchev to take his rockets and his hydrogen bombs out of Cuba. We were put on full alert and a war footing immediately, even those of us with no training, and told to be ready to go to pick up our tanks on 1 hour's notice. Believe me, things were scary!

On talking further, it turned out that this chap and myself had, continents apart (he lived at about 0 longitude, I live at 101 West), had exactly the same nightmare, night after night after night. We were just kids, Dani, just kids trying to go to school and learn long division and the multiplication tables and stuff like that...... and we were tormented, night after night, with the same nightmare, one in which we saw a huge black airplane overhead and watched it drop a gigantic black bomb, which we knew in the dream was a hydrogen bomb, directly on top of us. We woke up the split second before the bomb hit us, every time. Or walking through a radioactive wasteland after an attack. It's not healthy for kids, 8, 10, 12 years old, to have this kind of dream..... night after night after night after night.

That's just dreams, but they assured that many of us never got a decent night's sleep, and accounts partly for the large number of people of my generation who still cannot sleep at night. Our family had a bomb shelter in our basement, and we are nearly 200 miles from the nearest major target, the city of Winnipeg (bomb Winnipeg and you have cut Canada completely in half: everything goes through Winnipeg............. oil pipelines, gas pipeline, both railroads, the main highway, electrical grid..... everything. It is the Number 2 target on the NORAD list.) The shelter made sense, though: the Soviet rockets of the period were so inaccurate that a "miss" of 50 miles was counted as a "hit". What made the difference was the incredible explosive power of the Soviet warheads. MIRVing technology had not been developed; damage depended upon a single blast, so, the bigger the better. A 60-megaton warhead was considered "standard" and was tested regularly. Khrushchev announced, and the USSR manufactured in large numbers, a 100-megaton warhead. Remember, the destruction of Hiroshima, which the entire "civilized" world still bewails (not understanding the issues of the time, of course, and looking at things through rose-coloured 2003 glasses)....... required a manually-dropped bomb of about 15 kilotons explosive power. Khrushchev put into mass production a warhead of 6,000 times this power. Imagine that: 6,000 Hiroshimas, all in one little bomb casing: the explosive power of 100,000,000,000 kilograms of trinitrotoluene, the nastiest explosive of World War One.

I really think we did have something to worry about.

This area, even though we never had anything to do with the Cold War (except feed Russia at 1/3 of cost price, during one of Khrushchev's famines), got the warm end of the sabre-rattling. Here, we were blanketed on at LEAST one occasion with a load of radiation from a Siberian "test" which should have resulted in the evacuation of this entire district and everything for at least 100 miles around. My father actually detected this radiation, measured it accurately (in the oilwell completion business, you have the equipment to do this) and sent the results in to our Government. His work was classified and no announcement was ever made. Today, we have the highest cancer rate in North America, right here in this little town. Wonder why, huh?

Yes, we did have something to worry about.

And a result of this worry was, apart from nightmares and a life-long paranoia and a definite distrust of anything which looks or sounds even vaguely like a politician........... was a liking for simple escape fiction.

During this period many writers, Edgar Rice Burroughs among them, enjoyed quite a renaissance, simply because the stories, old as they were, were about something other than being vapourized into trillions of tiny radioactive particles....... we got enough of that from the news, the papers, magazines and so forth.

And so de Camp's Krishna, Burroughs' Barsoom, Leigh Brackett's Mars or one of the many s/f futures.... of Asimov, of Heinlein, of Verne, of Wells.... or one of Poul Anderson's many, many alternates, were enjoyed. They were a way OUT of what looked, at the time, to be a very unpleasant ending which appeared to be coming up at any time. Remember, the best equipment of the period, the Canadian DEW Line, could only give a 15-minute maximum warning for an inland target. In coastal areas, you would not get more than 2 minutes, if that. So Flandry and Martin Padway and David Falkayn and Nicholas van Rijn and John Carter and Eric Stark and a dozen Heinlein characters, became our friends on paper.

The great British writer Nevil Shute, though he was writing very realistic tales, also was a purveyor of escape fiction because they were all much, much better than the reality which we lived in. Heinlein sold God-knows-how-many books, Shute sold over 15 million and the production figures for many writers, for a life's work, mind you, approached figures which, today, Steven King can get with one of his semiliterate fantasies in its first week on the stands. One of Shute's best tales was "In the Wet", a post-apocalyptic tale, although I do prefer as my all-time Shute favourite, "The Rainbow and the Rose".

All of which brings us to the post-apocalyptic tale, which went through a long period of popularity, again, largely a result of "what-if"ing about the Bomb really dropping.

Anyway, it was in this period that de Camp's Martinus Paduei made his reappearance on the newsstands, the original 1939 edition being long-out-of-print and quite unavailable. My paperback has a copyright date of 1939 and recopyright in the 1970s, which likely was when it was "edited" so disastrously. Internal references to Benny the Moose (Il Duce, Benito Mussolini) and to, as you have pointed out, money, do date the tale, as does the reference to a 12,000-lire hat, obviously the result of the tale being "edited" by somebody who does not know how to leave well enough alone. Really! A 12,000-lire hat? Likely, in 1938, it might have been an expensive hat at 120 lire, but the 12,000 figure obviously is the result of somebody tampering with the story who hadn't the brains either to leave it alone or make enough changes so that they would agree with each other....... and if these changes all were to be made, Padway would have nothing at all to exchange. Modern Italian coinage is aluminium, the 1941 1-lire piece in my collection is nickel...... and S. Dentatus doesn't want this funny stuff, so what would he want with featherweight modern coinage? So the story should be left as de Camp wrote it.

It's an enjoyable tale and, as you have pointed out, is well worth reading, and for a lot of reasons. Just recently, it has inspired me to get on the 'Net and start looking for things. Yesterday, I downloaded Volume 4 of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", this from Carnegie-Mellon's ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/dfred410.htm. The day before, looking for more on Cassiodorus, I discovered that his "Gothic History" has been lost..... but I downloaded, for free, his main source, which I intend to print out on some lovely 11x17-inch 24-pound paper I have lying around, and make a scroll of it before I read it. The same fate awaits the complete text of Procopius of Caesarea's "Secret History" which I downloaded from reptilianagenda.com. These will make lovely shelfmates to my "Book of the Dead", once I have them in a nice 6th-Century uncial typeface.

Good fiction can do this; it can inspire people to want to learn more, and the very best s/f writers, Heinlein and de Camp at the head of the column, have the power to do this. For this alone, they should be honoured. There are other writers of great modern fiction but, I am sorry to say, I can't include writers such as Steven King among them. Lord Dunsany, yes, Howard Philips Lovecraft, a definite YES...... but not Steven King. And, although I myself write fiction, I doubt seriously if anything I have done, or ever will do, will ever inspire anyone to start searching the 'Net.... all of which is why I do not put myself in the same class as de Camp.

Anyway, Dani, all I am saying is that fiction, in whatever period, must be appreciated not only in the context of the period in which it is being read, but also in the context of the period in which it was written. Pushkin, Lermontov, Victor Hugo, Kipling, Verne, Dickens, Jane Austen: ALL are obsolete, all are dated.... but all tell us something about being human, about what people want today and about what they wanted at the time the tales were written. It is by comparisons of these likes and dislikes, wants, needs and little hates, that we define literature... and by which literature defines its period of popularity..... and finds itself another audience a decade or three, a century, a couple of centuries, after it was written originally. We can learn a lot about our world, about people today and people in the past, through fiction. We learn more about the Regency period from Jane Austen than we do from any of the great historians. And we learn from de Camp that maybe, just perhaps, many of our concerns are quite irrespective of our personal period of crawling around on the surface of this planet.

There: I have ranted and raved quite enough. I do hope some of this makes sense, and I welcome your comments, rants, raves, shrieks in return...... and those of anyone who is mad enough to write back!

Take care, and thanks for plodding through this.

Yours truly,
George H. Armstrong