LEST DARKNESS FALL
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Lest Darkness Fall, originally published as a short story in Unknown in 1939, is one of the true classics of time travel and alternate history literature. Taking his cue from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), L. Sprague de Camp sends his protagonist, Martin Padway, a Ph.D. candidate, back to Rome in the sixth century.
This was a period of upheaval for Italy. The western Roman Empire had finally succumbed to the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century and the Eastern Emperor, Justinian (527-565), was preparing to send his generals, first Belisarius and then Narsus, into Italia. Aware that war was about to ravage the entire Italian peninsula, Padway sets about instituting technological and ideological change in the hopes of preventing too much turmoil and securing a position of wealth and safety for himself.
In this, his first novel, De Camp does a fantastic job researching the Byzantine Empire. As Byzantine scholar Harry Turtledove has pointed out, "except for the introduction of Martin Padway, de Camp was making up next to nothing."* However, that introduction of Padway is the catalyst which sets the entire novel into motion. Like Twain's Hank Morgan, Martin Padway has extensive knowledge from the twentieth century and is able to apply it as needed. Unlike Morgan, Padway's knowledge frequently fails him and he has to determine the best way to work around his shortcomings.
Padway's influence is also less militaristic than one might expect given the situation in which he finds himself. One of his major achievements is the introduction of double entry bookkeeping. Padway also attempts to begin a sort of Renaissance by introducing anachronistic scientific theory, such as the laws of gravity.
Just as Twain used humor, satire, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, de Camp also uses humor, although of an even more subtle variety. Rarely the type to make the reader laugh out loud, de Camp sprinkles his world with quiet in-jokes which will bring a smile to the knowledgable reader's lips.
Perhaps the greatest divergence between Twain's work and de Camp's, and one of the reasons de Camp's novel is considered a classic in the field, is that in the end, Martin Padway is able to effect change in the world in which he finds himself. There is no Merlin to put him to sleep for a thousand years, nor a Church to set about undoing all the modernization he has done. Furthermore, while both Padway and Morgan managed to elevate themselves in the social hierarchy, Morgan's position was entirely at the whim of King Arthur, while Padway managed to work himself more firmly into the fiber of the society.
Lest Darkness Fall firmly belongs entrenched in the classics of science fiction. With this novel, de Camp took the ideas of time travel and alternate history which had been used in science fiction since the nineteenth century and fused them in a logical marriage, showing how time travel could change the outcome of events in our own world. He also brought historical realism to science fiction by carefully researching a period of history which is not particularly well covered in most basic history classes.
* Harry Turtledove, "Introduction to Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring the Light," Baen, 1996.
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