Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
May 28th, 2020, 2:20 pm

Title: Lest Darkness Fall
Author: L. Sprague de Camp
Year: 1939
Genre: Fiction > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Alternate History
Rating: ★★★★

Mobilism: Read
Amazon: Purchase

Here is a quick recommendation for L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, likely amongst the earliest examples of time travel being used to present an historical divergence in fiction. It's a very short novel, an eighty-year old fantasy story that holds up well. An archaeologist from the 1930's 'time-slips' into 6th century, Ostrogoth-ruled Rome, when the capital of this new Ostrogothic Kingdom of the western half of the empire is in Ravenna, as it has been so for over a century, well before the 'official' fall of Rome even.

The book is concerned more with setting the scene than it is with characterisation, but the peculiarities of various characters still shine through. What's surprising is just how fun and funny the work is without explicitly attempting to be a comedy. The juxtaposition of the protagonist's knowledge and ignorance lands him in situations that include a vis-à-vis with a Bishop and later with a bloodthirsty fiancée, haggling for interest rates, and a very entertaining scene of inter-bureaucratic conflict. All the characters in the story are entertaining and interesting, no matter how brief their role or how thinly developed.

Other pleasing elements include de Camp's attention to language: pointing out the difference between classical Latin and a more vulgar spoken-form extant circa half a century after the fall of Rome, what he describes as the Latin half-way mark between that of Cicero and Dante Alighieri's time periods. Rome is also depicted as a metropolis with a multiplicity of foreigners which adds to the flavour of the setting. And Padway is a very likeable, forward-thinking protagonist. Being a field-savvy academic, his practicality in dealing with the quotidian aspects of survival in a foreign land is amusing to follow—these include obtaining valid local currency, securing a line of credit, and an introduction to a lawyer well-versed in the situation of foreigners. What's appealing in de Camp's story is a sense of proactive individualism akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, but without Twain's satirical depiction of the customs and politics of his chosen period.

Events start to diverge from the historical record once new technologies are introduced, a deadly trifecta of ideas that guarantee drastic socioeconomic change. It's actually quite a clever little book on historical engineering, since what this story manages is a credible snapshot of changes that a single, knowledgeable individual—admittedly, a bit of a renaissance man—could implement. Padway's concern is stability of situation, and the pursuit of such makes him resolve to work toward a larger purpose, the implication of which is a radically changed timeline.

As a short, fast-paced, light-hearted romp of a story, Lest Darkness Fall thoroughly entertains and is clever without affecting cerebral pretensions.
May 28th, 2020, 2:20 pm
May 30th, 2020, 8:00 am
This was written as a response to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (De Camp said that in his introductory note in the magazine Unknown). Padway arrives in Rome at shortly after the year Hank arrived in Arthurian Britain. Both attempted to change history, to prevent the collapse of civilisation of the "Dark Ages". But Twain's story was ultimately pessimistic, that history was inevitable, no one man can change it. De Camp's story took the opposite view, that one man with the knowledge and ability to apply it could change the course of history.

There was a collection published in 2011, Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories which included sequel stories by Frederik Pohl, S. M. Stirling and David Drake and an afterword by Alexei and Cory Panshin. You can find that at Library Genesis.
I edited that and added an appreciation by Turtledove and the introduction and illustrations from the Unknown magazine:
-- seems I'm not allowed to link to it here. if you want it, send me a PM.
May 30th, 2020, 8:00 am