Aug 14 2008 9:17am

Has Queen Amalasuntha Been Assassinated Yet? L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall

In 1939, L. Sprague de Camp came up with one of the wonderful ideas of science fiction, the man taken out of his time to a time of lower technology who works to change history and technology. This has been done since by H. Beam Piper in Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1965; UK title Gunpowder God) where the character finds himself in an alternate reality of a lower tech level; by Jerry Pournelle in Janissaries (1975), where a small group of soldiers are taken to a low-tech planet; by S.M. Stirling in Island in the Sea of Time (1997), where the island of Nantucket winds up in the Bronze Age; and by Eric Flint in 1632 (1998), where a US town is transported to the middle of the Thirty Years War.

You may have noticed that as time and technology have advanced, it’s taken more and more people to do the job. In 1941, what De Camp has Padway do is just about credible. One man who’s used one could improvise an early twentieth-century printing press. A computer and a laser printer, on the other hand...Other writers using this trope have been much more concerned with military technology than was de Camp. Padway wins his battles with knowledge from the future and improved communications technology.

De Camp’s Martin Padway is a historian of the sixth century, the period he winds up in. There’s barely a handwave of explanation as to how Padway makes his way across time. As soon as Paadway’s there, he puts his head down and starts to concentrate on what makes these books such fun—improvising technology from what he knows and can find around him. Padway starts with distilling and double-entry bookkeeping and makes his way up to newspapers and heliographs. He defeats a Byzantine invasion and subverts Belisarius. On the way to messing up history, he develops a reputation for knowing things about the future, largely by asking questions like “Has Queen Amalasuntha been assassinated yet?” The book ends with a letter to Justinian advising him to conquer Arabia quickly to avert problems likely to come from that direction later.

The more you know history, the more you can see how clever the book is. The same goes for the technology. Padway has failures—cannon prove to be more trouble than the worth of it, and there just isn’t enough parchment in Rome for a regular newspaper. De Camp was a historian of technology. His The Ancient Engineers (1963) is a Eurocentric but nevertheless fascinating non-fiction book. He uses his knowledge of how technologies work and interlock in his fiction.

What brings me back to this book is how much sheer fun it is. It’s short, but it rattles along at a tremendous pace. It's funny—for instance, Padway keeps being asked about religion by religious fanatics of various stripes, and he always repies that he's a Presbyterian, that’s as close to whatever religion his interlocutor professes as they have in America. He does this with some entirely contradictory sects, and everyone always accepts it. He gets into the funniest situations with his combination of knowledge and ignorance. Unlike the heroes of the other books above Padway never makes himself a king or marries a princess—though he does have a close call. He’s fairly self-effacing. He works behind the scenes to make himself comfortable in the world he finds himself in. It’s one man and his knowledge against a whole complex world, and I can happily watch Padway pull it off time after time.

1. colomon
The first example I'm aware of this sort of story is also the most famous: Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
2. Sumana Harihareswara
I just read this book -- my first de Camp -- a few weeks ago, and found it a great ride. It's a good reminder that sometimes an author can pull off VERY handwavy plot devices with aplomb. It was an especially fast ride given that I had just read an advance reader's copy of Stephenson's new similarly culture-clash-themed tome _Anathem_, which is 911 pages not including a glossary or three "Calca" appendices.

Thanks for the analysis.
3. Mfitz
I read this book in middle school and it was one of the things that got me hooked on SF. Ever since then I've had this silly back-burner fear that if I got swept back in history it wouldn't change a thing since although I has a good science education, and am pretty clever with my hands I was no were near as informed about how things go together as Padway.

I wonder if that speaks to your point about the difference in what was considered a good education, or a good science education in 1930's -vs- 1970's. I could explain scads about stuff like, evolutionary theory, dinosaurs metabolism, plate tectonics, ecosystems interdependence, and have an under standing in a general way of how atoms, genes, double entry accounting and the solar system work, but I only have a vague idea about what goes on inside a car, gun, steam engine or printing press.
Bruce Cohen
4. SpeakerToManagers
De Camp was a master of the short novel with a fast pace and humorous tone: Divide and Rule, The Stolen Dormouse, The Incomplete Enchanter. He liked to show his heroes and heroines as competent but not superhuman people, often with minor character flaws that made them easier for the reader to identify with. It's occurred to me that Padway's character is a central part of why he's so successful at changing technology and history. He is a technologist, a pragmatist with a rule-of-thumb, trial-and-error approach to engineering; not a scientist or a modern design engineer, working from a first principles and a strong grasp of theoretical physics and chemistry. In that he's very much like the Romans, whose engineering was empirical rather than theoretical. I don't know if de Camp meant Padway to be representative of what the Romans might have been like, scrubbed clean of superstition and the lust for power, but I would say that a good part of his success comes from seeing the world in a way the Roman worldview can understand.
Paul Arzooman
5. parzooman
Always liked Lest Darkness Fall especially the fact that Padway seems to have little problem doing his best to change history to his own liking.

The only issue I've had with stories like this is that the person or people sent back seem to always have exactly the information they need to survive. Steve Stirling did this in his Nantucket series but I wonder if that wasn't intentionally tongue-in-cheek as well as a plot device.
Paul Howard
6. DrakBibliophile
In the discussion area for the 1632 universe, they've had 'fun' discussing what knowledge would be in Grantville.

Drak Bibliophile
Greg Morrow
7. gpmorrow
Hmm. Preview didn't work on my browser (Opera 9.26), so my comment didn't post. Let's try IE.

David Weber's recent Off Armageddon Reef seems to me to be quite similar to Lord Kalvan, so it may qualify in this category.

I truly enjoyed Lest Darkness Fall (as well as many of LSdC's other works). Padway's practicality and self-protective lack of ambition make a fun contrast to the usual run of Kimball Kinnison-style protagonists.
Terry Karney
8. Terry_Karney
If the heroes weren't able to thrive, the books wouldn't be much good.

I am a decent tinkerer (and I was a machinist, and have worked with presses, and linotype, one of the few people at the tail end of that tech (held-over equipment kept alive by a bookmaker/printer/pressman who both adored them, and taught printshop).

I suspect that this book is no small part of my decided desire to know how things work; I was young enough when I read it (and his Greece setting), to have daydreams of how I might do.
Paul Arzooman
9. parzooman
All I can say is that I hope the Universe has an unwritten rule about sending back people who know how to survive because if I were to be teleported back to ancient times, I'd be royally screwed. Not only would I not be able to communicate with anyone...well, that pretty much says it right there.
Sandi Kallas
10. Sandikal
Colomon took my comment. Mark Twain used this idea in 1889, 50 years before de Camp, when he wrote "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." It's an idea that still works though.
Clifton Royston
11. CliftonR
It's also an idea that - being a blank slate for projection - explores the character of the author.

Twain's Connecticut Yankee, with the most enlightened intentions, mostly brings doom and greater bloodshed to the past; the aftermath of his successful use of the gatling gun is nearly as bleak as the dark scenes from Twain's Mysterious Stranger. DeCamp had a fundamentally sunnier outlook on life. His Incompleat Enchanter series are a riot.
Bruce Baugh
12. BruceB
I credit this book and Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series with arousing an interest in the details of history that led directly to my majoring in the subject in college.

One of the things I like both de Camp's and Anderson's takes is that people in the past are just as complex, smart, and interesting as people from the present. They have some foolish ideas and there are things they don't know, but, duh, that's true of us too, and they have some smart ideas and know things we've forgotten, too.
13. cbyler
#11: I think you're neglecting Twain's politics. If a bloodbath was the only way to get rid of the parasitic aristocracy (and ISTR the Boss tried more peaceful means only to have them rejected, and didn't pick the fight you refer to), then so much the worse for the aristocrats.

That wasn't necessarily a bad outcome, although it did go through some rough spots.

You see this somewhat in Stirling and Flint's more recent series, too.
Mitch Wagner
14. MitchWagner
Jo, I'm really enjoying this series of discussions of classic sf. Great work!
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
You know, I've never read the Twain. There's something about the way he writes that always puts me off. I've read the beginning of a number of his books, but I'm not sure I've finished any of them except _Tom Sawyer_, which I read and enjoyed when I was very young.
Sandi Kallas
16. Sandikal
If you've tried to read "Huckleberry Finn", that's understandable. It's a very difficult book. I had to read it not once, but twice while working on my English Lit degree. It's very complex, but it had a lot of influence on modern literature, even science fiction and fantasy. There have been many times I've read a book and thought, "Gee, that reminds me of 'Huckleberry Finn.'" Of course, I think Twain got his structure from "The Odyssey."

I think "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" is Twain's most accessible book. It's definitely worth a read for anyone who's interested in very early science fiction. (That would be anything written before there was a genre called science fiction.)
Mitch Wagner
17. MitchWagner
My favorite Twain is his autobiographical work: "Roughing It," which is the story about how he and his brother went off to the Nevada Territories during the silver-mining rush; "The Innocents Abroad," about the first American tourist trip to Europe and what was then called the Holy Land; "Life on the Mississippi," about his years as a riverboat pilot; and the "Autobiography," about, well, everything.

Twain was and is a fascinating and accessible writer -- his autobiographical work still has an intimate quality, as of a really interesting friend telling you about his adventures -- but he's even more interesting as a person.

Twain was the first non-sf writer I read, and I was introduced to him by Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, in which he's a character. I have difficulty reconciling Farmer's fictionalized Twain with the real article, but what the heck, the Farmer novels are still terrific.

Twain was an early adopter of technology. He was one of the first writers to adopt a typewriter, and he owned one of the first telephones in a private home. His love of technology was almost his downfall, he lost a fortune investing in the Paige Typesetting Machine, which failed to compete with the Linotype.
Moshe Feder
18. Moshe
LDF is one of my all-time favorite books, and an obvious homage to my favorite Mark Twain book too. As I told the folks at the Alternate History panel in Denver, it caused me to take a year of Latin in college, just in case I should ever find myself in Martin Padway's situation!

No one who loves the book should miss Steve Stirling's wonderful tribute to it, "The Apotheosis of Martin Padway," (in the misleadlingly titled Baen collection, The Enchanter Completed), which deals with the end of Martin's history-altering career.
19. MBG
I just thought I'd add Leo Frankowski's Cross-Time Engineer series to the list of competent and intelligent heroes who travel back in time.
20. AlanS
I don't think it's a coincidence or even plagiarism the similarities to "Connecticut Yankee". I think LDF was written as a counterpoint. Padway was sent to almost the same year as Morgan, and both try to stop "darkness falling". Twain's story had the bleaker, "history is a tide" viewpoint, that the rise and fall of nations is an inevitable process despite what any one man does, where de Camp's story followed the "great man" theory of history, that one man at the right place and time with the right knowledge CAN change the world.
21. Fred R.
"Padway keeps being asked about religion by religious fanatics of various stripes, and he always repies that he's a Presbyterian, that’s as close to whatever religion his interlocutor professes as they have in America"

It was Congregationalist actually.

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