Surviving Perilous Times: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague De Camp

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

I’ve always found that one way to feel better about your life is to read a story about someone with even worse problems than you, and seeing how they overcome those difficulties. Time travel stories are a good way to create problems for fictional protagonists. The author drops a character into a strange new environment—something challenging, like the waning days of the Roman Empire, for example. They will be equipped only with their experience in the modern world, and perhaps some knowledge of history or technology. And then you see what happens… Will they be able to survive and change history, or will inexorable sociological forces overwhelm their efforts? And when that character springs from the fertile imagination of L. Sprague De Camp, one of the premiere authors of the genre, you can be sure of one thing—the tale will be full of excitement, and a lot of fun, to boot.

The first science fiction convention I ever attended was ConStellation, the 41st World Science Fiction Convention, held in Baltimore in 1983. A Worldcon is certainly an exciting way to enter the world of fandom. My father and brother took me on a quick tour of the huckster room, then whisked me off to a small group meeting with one of my dad’s favorite authors, L. Sprague De Camp. I found this exciting, as I had read a few of De Camp’s works, and knew him as the man who rescued Robert E. Howard’s Conan from obscurity. The event was held in his room, a crowded venue, and his wife Catherine was uncomfortable being a hostess without any resources to entertain the visitors. The author himself lived up to every preconceived notion I had about writers. He was tall and patrician, dashing even, with black hair flecked with gray and a neatly trimmed goatee. I can’t remember his attire, but he wore it nattily. I seem to remember a pipe, but that might just be a memory from book dust jacket photos. He was witty, erudite, and told some fascinating stories. He had the group in the palm of his hands, and before we knew it, our hour was done. When you start your fan experiences with a Worldcon, it is hard to go anywhere but downhill, and when the first author you meet up close and personal is L. Sprague De Camp, the same rule applies. Before or since, it has been a rare treat when I have met anyone even half as impressive as De Camp.


About the Author

L. Sprague De Camp (1907-2000) was a widely respected American author of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and non-fiction. His higher education was in aeronautical engineering, but he was widely versed in many fields—a modern-day Renaissance man.

De Camp’s first published story appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1937, but John Campbell’s companion fantasy magazine, Unknown (started in 1939) gave De Camp a venue that better suited his imagination. He was a frequent contributor to both Astounding and Unknown, becoming one of the stable of authors editor John Campbell favored during the period that many call the “Golden Age of Science Fiction.” His work was known for intellectual rigor, for well-staged action scenes, and especially for its wit and humor.

In 1939 De Camp married Catherine Crook. They remained together until her death just a few months before his. She was a writer herself; they sometimes collaborated. He was commissioned in the Navy Reserve during World War II, worked alongside Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov on special projects at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

In later years, De Camp turned more to fantasy than science fiction. One of his greatest accomplishments, writing with Fletcher Pratt, was the humorous fantasy series featuring the character Harold Shea, the first book of which, The Incomplete Enchanter, came out in 1941. When the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings created a new market for heroic fantasy, De Camp helped resurrect Robert E. Howard’s pulp magazine tales of the warrior Conan, editing Howard’s work, finishing tales from Howard’s fragments and notes, and writing new tales himself. Conan became wildly popular, with many new books being added to the series, and movie adaptations based on the character. Some have criticized De Camp’s rewrites as meddling, but without his efforts, the character may have never re-emerged from obscurity (and for purists, Howard’s work in its original form is now widely available).

De Camp was prolific and wrote over a hundred books. Over forty of these works were novels, with the others being non-fiction on a variety of subjects. He wrote many books on science, history, and engineering topics, my favorite being The Ancient Engineers, which should be given to anyone who thinks ancient aliens were behind many of mankind’s historical accomplishments. He also wrote well-received biographies of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. His own autobiography, Time & Chance: An Autobiography, won De Camp’s only Hugo Award in 1996.

De Camp was voted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to receive the Grand Master Award, and was also recognized by fans with a World Fantasy Convention Award. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery with his wife Catherine.


Adventures Through Time

Time travel is a perennially popular theme in science fiction. There are journeys back in time, journeys forward in time, journeys sideways in time, and a whole plethora of tales that center on the various paradoxes that time travel could create. Readers have an endless fascination with exploring the impact a time traveler might have on history, or just the impact that living in the past could have on the travelers themselves. Moving forward in time gives us glimpses of what might happen, and these tales often contain a cautionary element. Moving sideways in time gives us the chance to look at alternate worlds, where history led to a world different from our own. The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an excellent article on the theme of time travel, which you can find here.

In this column, I have reviewed a number of other time travel adventures. Sideways in time adventures (a favorite of mine) have included Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper, A Greater Infinity by Michael McCollum, and The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith. I looked back in time with S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time. And I looked at time travel attempting to head off disaster with Armageddon Blues by Daniel Keys Moran. There have been several other time travel tales that have come up in anthologies, but being a linear thinker, I tend not to care for fiction that focuses at the mechanics of time travel, or the paradoxes it creates.

Lest Darkness Falls is one of the earliest, best, and most influential time travel tales in classic SF, and centers on one person trying to change history. A shorter version of Lest Darkness Fall appeared in Unknown during its first year of publication, followed by a hardback edition in 1941, and the book has been in print pretty much ever since. Lest Darkness Falls shows how modern persons can apply their knowledge to the past in a way that has a huge impact on history. But not all De Camp’s time travel stories were so optimistic. His later story “Aristotle and the Gun,” for example, which appeared in Astounding in 1958, portrays a time traveler with great ambitions for changing the current world, but whose actions, and the disastrous response of the world of the past, do not result in anything approaching the consequences he’d initially planned.


Lest Darkness Fall

We are introduced to Martin Padway, a mild-mannered archaeologist who is being driven through modern Rome by an Italian colleague with an interesting theory: that various missing persons have slipped back in time, but we don’t see the world change because their presence creates a branch in history. De Camp’s witty touch is present right from the start as he describes the hair-raising behavior of the Italian drivers the pair encounter. How the time travel actually happens is not explained, but during a lightning storm, Martin suddenly finds himself in the past. He is in a Rome with no cars and no electricity, and from the language, attire, and other clues, realizes he is in the latter days of the Roman Empire. It is clear that De Camp has done his homework, and he brings the world of Sixth Century Italy vividly to life. The language spoken here is partway between classic Latin and modern Italian, and Padway is soon able to communicate in a rough manner. He goes to a money changer, finds a place to stay, and acquires clothes that make him a bit less obtrusive. Martin then goes to a banker with an interesting proposition: If the banker will give him a loan, he will teach his staff Arabic numerals and algebra. This is different from many other tales in this sub-genre, in which engineering, technological, or military knowledge is used by the time traveler. But those wouldn’t fit the bookish nature of Padway’s character as well as skills like double-entry bookkeeping.

Padway finds that he has arrived after the invasion of Rome by the Ostrogoths, who left Roman society largely intact. But he knows that the Eastern or Byzantine Empire will soon be invading, with their forces led by the famously competent General Belisarius, and the subsequent wars will be devastating. Padway is not an especially altruistic character, but in order to save himself, he must do what he can to stave off this catastrophe.

He builds a printing press, and in addition to printing books, he decides to start a newspaper, which gives him immediate political influence. And he convinces some rich and powerful people to invest in a telegraph system that will link the country with information. He assembles telescopes, needed to minimize the number of towers for his new telegraph, and then uses that new invention to gain favor from the Ostrogoth king.

I could go on at length about the many fascinating characters, scenes, and situations that populate this book, as these portrayals all speak to De Camp’s considerable strengths as an author. But that would rob new readers of the fun of encountering them when reading the book. I should note that like many other science fiction books written in the mid-20th century, there are few female characters. There is a maid that Martin abandons after a one-night stand because her hygiene offends him. And later in the narrative, he falls for an Ostrogoth princess, and actually starts talking marriage until he realizes she is a pre-Machiavelli Machiavellian, full of murderous plots to amass power. He adroitly puts her in contact with a handsome prince, and then gracefully admits defeat when she falls in love with this new suitor.

When war comes, Martin finds himself drawn into statecraft and military leadership at the highest levels. He has some knowledge of history, of course, which some see as a magical precognitive power, but as his presence affects and changes history, his predictive powers begin to wane. And while his efforts to make gunpowder fail, he does have some knowledge of tactics that can be used to defend Rome from the catastrophe that threatens…


Final Thoughts

I have been more cursory than usual in recapping the action because I strongly urge everyone who has not discovered this book to go out, find a copy, and read it. It is even better than I remembered, has stood up remarkably well over time, and is a fun adventure from beginning to end. De Camp is one of the greatest authors in the science fiction and fantasy pantheon, and this book is among his finest.

It is fascinating to read how Martin Padway, an ordinary man, rises to the occasion and heads off disaster on a massive scale. It reminds us all that ordinary people, if they have courage and perseverance, can have a positive impact on history—an important lesson for the times in which we live.

And now I turn the floor over to you: Have you read Lest Darkness Fall, or other works by L. Sprague De Camp? If so, what did you think?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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