Saturday, September 28, 2013

Alternate History: The Last Days of Rome

Lest Darkness FallLest Darkness Fall 
by L. Sprague de Camp

“You don't like the Goths?" 
"No! Not with the persecution we have to put up with!" 
"Religious persecution. We won't stand for it forever." 
"I thought the Goths let everybody worship as they pleased." 

"That's just it! We Orthodox are forced to stand around and watch Arians and Monophysites and Nestorians and Jews going about their business unmolested, as if they owned the country. If that isn't persecution, I'd like to know what is!”   ― L. Sprague de Camp

Lest Darkness Fall is an alternate history science fiction novel written in 1939 by author L. Sprague de Camp. The book is often considered one of the best examples of the alternate history genre; it is certainly one of the most influential.  The novel reminded me of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  In it American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938. When a thunderstorm arrives lightning cracks and he finds himself transported to 6th century Rome.
Padway arrives in an Italy ruled by the Ostrogoths, a tribe who recently overthrew the Western Roman Empire, but ruled with benevolence, allowing freedom of religion, and maintaining the urban Roman society they had conquered.
The Gothic War of the mid-sixth century saw the Eastern Roman Empire overthrow the Ostrogoths and the Vandals in north Africa, but they never consolidated their rule over Italy, and it collapsed into smaller states with further invasions by the Lombards. The great cities of Rome were abandoned as Italy fell into a long period of decline. Some historians consider this as the true beginning of the Dark Ages.
Padway initially wonders if he is dreaming or delusional. he quickly accepts his fate and sets out to survive. His first idea is to make a copper still and sell brandy for a living. He convinces a banker, Thomasus the Syrian, to lend him Seed money to start his endeavor. He also begins teaching his clerks Arabic numerals and double entry bookkeeping. He eventually develops a printing press, issues newspapers, and builds a sketchy semaphore telegraph system. His attempts to develop a mechanical clock, gunpowder, and a cannon are failures. He gradually becomes more and more involved in the politics of the state, as Italy is invaded by the Imperials and also threatened from the south and east.  This leads Padway to engage with the army in its campaigns and the results have the potential for unexpected changes in the direction of history. The novel is an entertaining read, but it did not impress this reader as worthy of all of the accolades it has received.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I have not read this one but I am a sucker for alternative histories. In fact I tend to think up alot of them myself.

Though I usually chaff when people comment that older style stories are somehow inferior to newer one, maybe this is a case where this genre needed to develop a bit.

On a side note, my very limited knowledge of the period would lead me to think that supporting the Eastern Empire with technological and other innovations would be the most effective way to forestall the Dark Ages.

James said...

Thanks for your insights. While the author had a great sense of humor and the alternate history was quite interesting for a while, the finish was disappointing and ultimately somewhat abrupt.