Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lest Darkness Falls

I was up on Amazon yesterday looking for bargains on non-fiction books about the Roman Empire and stumbled across a recommendation for a time-travel story in which a 1940s era man travels back in time to the 6th century and subsequently tries to prevent the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, I dearly love time travel stories and stories that deal with time traveling to the ancient world most of all. So I couldn't resist checking reviews of it and finally ordering it for myself.

Last night I got a call from my son, a sci-fi writer and officiando, and mentioned the book to him. He told me that Sprague De Camp and his wife Catherine, who were contemporaries of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, gained more recognition for his series about Conan the Barbarian than some of his more classic works like this title. Apparently they recently passed away which led their publisher to rerelease some of their earlier works. Judging from Harry Turtledove's glowing recommendation below, I'm glad they did.

"Lest Darkness Fall is the best Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court-type story ever written, with the possible--by no means certain--exception of the Connecticut Yankee itself. The tale of a modern man struggling to introduce technology in sixth-century Italy--where theology and war dominated affairs, and concern for knowledge was a tiny afterthought at best, with best not coming along very often--grips from the first page. Like any of de Camp's heroes, Martin Padway has no easy time of it, having to cope with the ignorance and foibles of a great many people, himself emphatically included. It's no wonder that Lest Darkness Fall, which first appeared in abridged form in the December 1939 issue of Unknown and was published at full length in 1941, has been in print almost continuously ever since, and no wonder that Baen Books has chosen to put it in print once more.

The plot of Lest Darkness Fall was not the only thing about it that grabbed me. I also found fascinating the world of sixth-century Italy that de Camp depicted with such loving attention to detail--including a lot of the unpleasant, smelly details that often get omitted from fiction dealing with the past. At the time, I knew nothing about such things, and had no real notion of how much of the background of Lest Darkness Fall was real and how much de Camp was making up. I started trying to find out, and soon discovered that, except for the introduction of Martin Padway, de Camp was making up next to nothing. He had done his homework, and done it well."
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