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.