Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Time Travel Tuesday: De Camp's Lest Darkness Fall

Imagine you found yourself sixth-century-AD Italy. Your first question's probably, "What was happening there then?" Next would be, "How do I learn Latin or Gothic?" Those matters dealt with, you'd be faced with a bigger question: would you settle for staying alive and perhaps relatively comfortable in that era as the remnants of Roman culture are falling apart around you, or would you try to improve things?

L. Sprague de Camp, a very prominent fantasy author in his day, has his protagonist choose the second. In Lest Darkness Fall, Prof. Martin Padway — fortunately, an archaeologist who's been studying that very period and knows the languages — finding himself in that situation, tries to prevent the Dark Ages from falling across Europe.

Problems dog his every effort to build up technology. Does he want to change the world? Well, first, he needs quick money. So, build a modern brewery. Well, he needs copper plate pipe. The coppersmith is able to make it - but Padway needs to stand over him telling him how to do every step. And then he needs to pay the smith with money borrowed at ruinous interest rates. Once that's all done, he needs to keep the autocratic (if generally benevolent) Ostrogoth kings from destroying his business (which, by now, includes a burgeoning newspaper publishing the gradually-improving work of Padway's trainee journalists).

It shouldn't have been a surprise that Padway was eventually arrested. When you make such waves in an autocratic kingdom, while behaving in such an obviously foreign manner, something's going to happen eventually. Still, it shocked me — a sign of how de Camp's storytelling had drawn me into Padway's brave efforts. Our hero emerges from the prison camp resolved that, if he can't safely ignore politics, he's going to interfere in them as much as he can!

Shocking people with his accurate knowledge of then-future events, Padway wins his way to leadership. He then proceeds to totally upset the traditions of the Ostrogoth kingdom, free the slaves, train a corp of archers in preparation for the Byzantine attack he knows is coming, and - finally - [SPOILER: final outcome] win the war.

The beginning of this story felt painful to me, but only because of a misconception: I'd confused it with another time travel story where the protagonist roundly fails at everything he tries. Once I realized that de Camp doesn't mind having Padway succeed, I watched his adventures with pleasure. I didn't know much about metalworking, journalism, telegraphy, or Ostrogothic politics, but de Camp explains everything so we can see the challenges before Padway and share in his triumph at surmounting them.

All in all, this is an appealing story for mature readers about a man trying to improve a previous age. Padway's goals aren't perfect, of course. He's quite cynical about religion and private morality; one of his taglines is, "I'm a Presbyterian; that's the closest thing to" [whatever denomination/heresy his interlocutor professes]. His private life doesn't infect his plans, though. I'm sure we'll all approve of advancing science and preventing the Dark Ages.

Time Travel Tuesday is inspired by Charlotte's Library's regular "Time Slip Tuesday." Yes, Charlotte, there are good time travel novels, even if not many more are being published today.


  1. I'm surprised by how many time travel books have been published the last few years! I find myself reviewing almost as many new ones as old classics these days. And speaking of which, this one has been on my list for ages...someday!

  2. whoops--the computer was still signed in as my son...it was really me.