I’ve read Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court long ago, and I was too young to cherish it. Although, in my defence, it was a very simplified comic book version. Historical fiction fan, I couldn’t appreciate that, while not a faithful depiction of the Middle Ages, nor a realistic speculation on what could have happened if a modern man was thrown into Dark Ages, it was a brilliant satire of late XIX-cent. Well, I missed it then, I honor it now, I put the Yankee on a venerable genre classic bookshelf and I move on. To newer stuff.
Not the latest stuff though, not this time. I’ve written about decent time travel novels in the past, now something from 1941 – L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall. Not as classic as 1889 Yankee, and much less ambitious, it’s recommended only for hardcore fans of slightly embarrassing pulp fantasy.
Archaeologist Martin Padway, protagonist of this short (174 pages!) book, gets (spoiler alert… it’s revealed on the very cover though) spirited away to VI-century Rome. It happens very soon, but not before we get a rather clumsy description of how time travel is supposed to work in this universe. Then he spends a few hours getting used to his new surroundings and promptly proceeds to empire building. Commercial empire, and than political one. He happens to posses enough knowledge and skills to basically recreate much of the technology of is original era.
Modern reader needs only to see a few Discovery Channel docs to know it’s not that easy…
In the last pages Padway plans the discovery of America to… get access to tobacco, that shows the difference between de Camp’s and our times 😉
Since the topic of sexism pops up every now and then on our blog, I will mention that the way author deals with female characters is… bad. They’re even more one-dimensional and stereotypical than male ones 😉 Finding a pretty and compliant wife is somewhere on Padway’s checklist (things to do after taking care of the important stuff), and that’s about it.
In a way, Lest Darkness Fall is what I believed Twain’s Yankee to be during my first read 20-odd years ago.
There are some interesting things. Not in the writing – it’s simplistic, shallow, typical of its era pulps, enjoyable in short dose when in the right mood. Not the plot, unsophisticated and painfully predictable. Time travel itself… deprived of any sense of mystery, used only as a plot device to transport the protagonist where he’s supposed to go. But the setting is something rarely explored by genre authors, and de Camp did enough research to merit applause by Harry Turtledove (say what you will about his writing, he’s got a Ph.D. in Byzantine history!). And if you don’t treat it too seriously, there are funny moments:
“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!”
Like this simplified view of religious conflicts of the era… Byzantine Empire is actually the Big Bad here, good natured Goths, taught tolerance and democracy by a liberal American, are the ones to fight the coming darkness.
Well, the research was relatively thorough, but we are talking about 1930-ties (short version of the novel was initially published in 1939).
So… not really a great novel. But short, possessing some discreet charm, and a nice way to remind us, that there is some progress in the world of literature 🙂