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Lest Darkness Fall, a 1939 alternative history novel by L. Sprague de Camp, tells the story of American archaeologist Martin Padway's accidental journey to 535 AD Rome. The idea feels very familiar to anyone who's read more than one or two science fiction books, but this was one of the first alternative history novels and has helped to shape the whole subgenre, something that needs to be taken into account when reading the classics. Spoilers ahead, beware!
The opening of the book is a bit strange, almost a science lecture on how people could get transported through time, and then that exact thing happens. Poor Padway is trying to take shelter from a thunderstorm in the Pantheon. Lightning cracks, and suddenly he finds himself in ancient Rome. I guess de Camp's foreshadowing works, because instead of contemplating the plausibility of a lightning strike being able to do something like that, I concentrated on Padway's fate instead. I actually think this is something many science fiction fans do: we're willing to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the story, but only up to a point. Most of the facts need to be right, or we get antsy. Fortunately, even if the science part of science fiction isn't that evident in the fantastical way Padway ends up in Rome, the rest of the novel feels meticulously researched and historically accurate; from Padway's struggle to get a craftsman to make copper piping for distilling alcohol (he wants to sell brandy to the Romans) to building a working telegraph system, every undertaking is described in detail and the issues well thought out. The only thing that bothered me a bit was the way the Romans and Goths talked in colloquial English, supposedly translated from the Latin Padway quickly masters.
Padway as a character is quite likeable: he's resourceful and doesn't wallow in his unfortunate circumstances, but gets straight to work instead. The novel is very entertaining and de Camp's clear and plain writing style helps to sell the story. My attention wandered a bit at the end with all the fighting, but all in all, I enjoyed the book. One thing that I especially liked was that de Camp didn't take the easy way out and return Padway to modern Italy at the end of the novel, as is customary in many alternative history stories. Padway's adventure continues far beyond the last page.
The name of the novel of course alludes to the fall of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages. Imagine where we'd be if we had skipped those? An interesting idea. The morality of changing the future doesn't figure into Padway's thinking that much, but as he isn't going back to the future, does it really matter? The original future will remain as an alternate timeline, according to the opening lecture bit.
Writing-wise, there aren't too many writer tricks to find here, but the advantages of clear prose and doing your research if you want to write alternative history are some obvious take-home points here.
A fascinating book. If you like alternative history, do give it a go.
Science Fiction Classics read 47/193.