In late 1930’s Rome, American archaeologist Martin Padway is having a holiday from his dig in Lebanon. Over dinner with his Italian friend Tancredi, a discussion of the nature of time and how a man might change the web of time becomes of eminently practical use when, a few hours later while studying the Pantheon, Martin finds himself cast back in time, to 6th Century Rome.
In 535 AD Rome, The Roman Empire is a half century dead, in the West anyway. The Gothic Kingdom rules Rome and Italy. The Byzantines lurk to the East, dreaming of reconquering Italy for the Eastern Roman Empire. Martin himself is a stranger in a strange land, of competing Christian sects and ambitious nobles. Its going to take all of Martin’s wits to not only survive in an alien country, but to forge an even grander scheme. You see, at the cusp of the long slide after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Martin realizes he is at an important moment of history, and as per his old friend, might be able to tackle the greatest challenge of all: To keep the Dark Ages from occurring.
Lest Darkness Fall is a classic time travel story by L. Sprague De Camp. In six decades of writing, L. Sprague De Camp, separately and in collaboration, wrote over 100 books and numerous stories. From straight historical novels like Dragon at the Ishtar Gate to time travel stories like Lest Darkness Fall to reconstituting Burroughs like Sword and Planet stories with the Viagens Interplantarias series, De Camp was a seminal figure of early science fiction and fantasy who quietly but inexorably influenced generations of contemporaries and successors.
While the conceit and methodology of sending Padway into the past is clearly just a literary device, once Padway finds himself in Rome, the novel goes into a “hard alternate history” sort of mode. No more fantastic elements. Padway struggles with the language; his Latin is rusty, and it gives De Camp a chance to throw bon mots of Latin to the reader. De Camp clearly knows the period, the culture, and the geopolitical events.
It is that knowledge of geopolitical events (he knows the Byzantines are coming, and considers this to be a very bad thing) that is combined with his attempts to be a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the post-Empire Romans. Not all of his innovations and inventions are a success, but seeing how he tries to jump start the local tech level, and the problems in doing so, shows De Camp’s deep knowledge of history and engineering. You wouldn’t be far wrong in calling Padway a geek protagonist.
In addition, the novel is funny. Padway continually claims to be from the mysterious land of America, and has to rapidly change its characteristics and nature so as to not offend the speaker, especially when trying to avoid getting into a dispute on the nature of God. There is heavy use of puns, clever dialogue, and wordplay. This is no surprise given that De Camp’s interest in languages, their development, evolution and use shows up in much of his work (including the fine essay “Language for Time Travelers”)
Lest Darkness Fall (and other time travel and alternate history by De Camp) were the genre works that inspired many to turn to alternate history and fantasy, including, but certainly not limited to, Harry Turtledove. Like Turtledove, it gave me my first glimpse (even as an adversarial role) at the often underrepresented Byzantine Empire in history and the idea of time travel and alternate history as a genre. Even decades later, few alternate history stories capture a period, its character, and its world as effectively as Lest Darkness Fall.