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Lest Darkness Fall

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When am I? Padway asked himself after the lightning-flash knocked him down. He knew where he was--Rome. He was there to study archaeology, and even though the lightning had left him dazed, he could see the familiar Roman buildings. But the buildings looked newer and the crowds in the street were wearing tunics, not suits! And a rich barnyard smell had replaced the gasoline-and-garlic aroma of modern Rome. So, when was he? And he was suddenly cold with fear of the answer...

174 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1941

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About the author

L. Sprague de Camp

537 books255 followers
Lyon Sprague de Camp, (Pseudonym: Lyman R. Lyon) was an American science fiction and fantasy author and biographer. In a writing career spanning fifty years he wrote over one hundred books, including novels and notable works of nonfiction, such as biographies of other important fantasy authors. He was widely regarded as an imaginative and innovative writer and was an important figure in the heyday of science fiction, from the late 1930s through the late 1940s.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 216 reviews
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,847 reviews16.3k followers
March 15, 2019
God bless you, Mr. Twain!

L. Sprague de Camp’s classic sci-fi / time travel / alternate history story, certainly influenced by Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, has stood the test of time itself very well.

Told with an adept eye for historically accurate detail and better than average characterization this 1939 publication is one of the earlier of the “golden age” of science fiction novels and most certainly one of the better written. De Camp was 3 years old when Twain died in 1910, so no kooky ideas of reincarnated writing styles can be brought forth, but on the other hand if a reader is willing to jump in on the whole traveling back in time, then why not?

The title is taken to correspond just as Rome is coming apart and the Dark Ages falling. Our hero, armed with 20th century savvy and know how, makes some interesting changes in the time line of 560s Rome. Like Twain’s Hank Morgan, de Camp’s protagonist is unceremoniously and inexplicably transported back in time (oddly to about the same time – though de Camp’s setting is Rome).

I have to admit that this era of the late Roman Empire is one about which I have little knowledge, but de Camp’s writing has made me want to learn more. I had no idea that in this time of the bifurcated Empire there existed in Rome a great cultural diversity of peoples: Goths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans, Huns, etc. De Camp has certainly researched the time well and his storytelling is first rate.

As a Poul Anderson fan, I was especially intrigued by de Camp’s take on the Twainian time travel motif, and de Camp produced a damn fine book. The allusion to Lincoln, proclaiming emancipation while worrying over telegraph reports was delicious, and his description of Goths is WAY different than what I'm used to.

Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,878 reviews22.6k followers
June 25, 2017
Martin Padway is struck by lightning while visiting Rome and finds himself permanently displaced to the 6th century AD. A student of history, he decides to use his knowledge of technology and history to prevent Rome's fall and thus prevent the Dark Ages, and single-handedly jumpstarts the Industrial Revolution, introducing distilleries (to give him some money to live on and finance his operations), double-entry bookkeeping, the telegraph, the printing press, modern methods of warfare, etc. Yankee ingenuity FTW!

There are lots of interesting ideas about technology and how it might affect an earlier civilization. Written in 1939, this is one of the earliest--if not the earliest--SF books dealing with alternative history, so if you like the genre, it's worth taking a look at this short novel if only for that reason. It has its moments, but for me was a little slow overall, and it's heavier on plot than characterization. It's kind of like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with less humor and more technology.
Profile Image for Shannon.
883 reviews217 followers
July 18, 2014
CONCEPT: A History professor is whisked back in time to Rome; only a few years before it's about to fall; with his foresight he attempts to not only create a living for himself but, at a later point, to stop the fall of Rome.

HISTORY SETTING: 6th century Italy; very interesting setup. I didn't know much about it and rarely is it covered except in passing as they focus on other parts of the world. DeCamp knows his material.

PACING: The story is only 260 pages long which is small for today's fantasy novels which go from 600 to 1000 pages. No particular story lasted a long time. Decamp would jump from conflict to conflict. In essence, it began with little problems, moving its way up and up to the bigger and more political ones. And, there are plenty. In fact, there are so many plots and intrigues and obstacles and conflicts, that it keeps moving along. Padway will solve one problem but then pick up at least one problem or more.

CONTEXT: Sprague knew his Roman History. There were several Historical points he factored into the story that allowed him to outthink his opponents. Moreover, I got a feel for the setting with the incense wafting out of a door, the togas, the smell of manure, the louse coming out of the maid's armpit . . . etc etc. Unlike some people, one felt they were truly living in this era. Sprague hit you with all of the senses: sight, smell, touch, sound.

OVERALL STRUCTURE: DeCamp is really good at his structure and surprises and pacing. Basically, I would divide this book up into three sections. The first part is laying down the ground work as Padway tries to figure out what has happened, to justify it, to make a living with the help of a merchant and open up a brandy sill. As high reps demand bribes, he begins to get involved in politics to a lesser extent. From there, he starts to expand his business and make friends. In the last third, which is probably half of the novel, he starts to run Rome. Puts the old emperor back on and uses him as sort of a puppet. Moves the capitol to Ravenna since that's one of the few spots which wasn't attacked by Goths. He wins the love of a Goth princess, dumps her to another man and then gets ready for several attacks upon Rome. Leads forces twice against Belisarius and then Bloody John.

WHY IT WORKED FOR ME: Other than the reasons stated above, I like Roman History and there were some very funny parts; especially in the dialogue!

FLAWS: Someone made the point that Padway was a little too ingenius at creating future inventions, as well as at maneuvering amongst all the political intrigues. There may be some validity to it but one who has studied such things wouldn't be hard pressed otherwise. It may have been a good idea to have shown that he knew of such things before since the typical professor wouldn't be able to make them nor perform political intrigues.

Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,145 reviews1,781 followers
December 12, 2014
** Original review** Nov.12, 2009**
de Camp made up a lot of my reading back in the 70s. This is an interesting take on the time stream idea. Pretty good read.

Wow, someone just liked this 2 line review. Thanks.

I'm surprised at how sparse it is. I imagine it's because my wife had passed away not long before and I was looking at moving to a smaller place. Please allow me to expand it a little.

I read this book long ago but it made an impact as it's very well written and one of the best classic science fiction/fantasy books around...that's in my opinion of course. I'm actually choosing to up my rating to 5 stars.

If you're a history "buff" especially of medieval history I think you'll really enjoy this book. It takes place "around" 535 and the events surrounding and following the "so called" Gothic War (535–554). In that period of time the population of Europe dropped from approximately 7 million to around 2 million. Some historians/scholars mark this as the true beginning on the Dark Ages. From this point there was a long period of descent in Italy.

So, when archeologist Martin Padway is thrown back to 535 he knows what's coming. Once he realizes he's not in a dream...or that there's nothing much he can do about it even if he is...he decides to take action.

I'm not sure this book is even still in print but if it is I can highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,421 reviews302 followers
March 1, 2020
Out of copyright. Nice FREE ebook at https://archive.org/stream/Galaxy_Sci...

Read Jo Walton's review, https://www.tor.com/2008/08/14/lest-d...
She points out why I prefer this one to the Twain book: de Camp was a historian of technology, so this is a tech-heavy book. Re-read sometime?
And note that Dana Stabenow loves it!

More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lest_Da...
CAUTION: HEAVY SPOILERS in the rest of that wikipage!
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,888 followers
April 15, 2017
Rating: 4* of five

A re-read of a classic SF novel rethinking the trope of time travel from Wellsian to Twainian tropes. The mysterious transposition into the past via non-technological means, though, is permanent in de Camp's work. I think that makes the story a lot more interesting and a lot more fun. The stakes are a lot higher for Padway/Paduei than for Snodgrass since Paduei is there in the past for good.

The parts of the story that don't quite work for me are the parts about Paduei's effects on the people around him. There's really nothing to explain how he gets so many people to line up with his interests, though the Bishop of Bologna scene is a classic. I'd've been more grumpy about this had the book been longer than 200pp. But it's not long enough to support the entire process of world-building modern readers demand; and the fact that it's a magazine story that's close to 80 years old is more than enough reason to forgive its flaws, considering the ground it broke. If you haven't read it, please do, and remember how old the idea of the Great Man of history, the vector of change, really is.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
1,981 reviews166 followers
September 29, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 6 books2,016 followers
May 9, 2019
I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court not long ago & wanted to reread this. I didn't enjoy either one as much as I have in the past, although I liked this one better this time around. The idea were great, but just a little too facile. I never really got the feeling of his struggles, although quite a few were mentioned. I thought 'Yankee' did a better job with the newspaper, for instance.

There were a lot of great ideas throughout the book, though. There are so many things I take for granted, including social attitudes. My wife never thought of having me kill off old girl friends, for instance.

It's a fun, fairly quick read & important in the evolution of SF. Definitely recommended.
Profile Image for Lauren.
219 reviews46 followers
March 1, 2018
"You have to be careful, doing business here in Rome. It's not like a growing town. Now, if this were Constantinople--" he sighed. "You can really make money in the East. But I don't care to live there, with Justinian making life exciting for the heretics, as he calls them. What's your religion, by the way?"

"What's yours? Not that it makes any difference to me."


"Well," said Padway carefully, "I'm what we call a Congregationalist." (It was not really true, but he guessed an agnostic would hardly be popular in this theology-mad world. "That's the nearest thing we have to Nestorianism in my country."

Lest Darkness Fall is, for about its first half, pleasantly readable and funny competence porn about a historian named Martin Padway who winds up in Rome on the brink of the Dark Ages. Padway is a low-key hero, which is charming, and he's at his best when he's working at something of a disadvantage: trying to hobble through this period's Latin-Italian hybrid speech and getting a loan by teaching double-entry bookkeeping and the concept of the zero to a local financier. His first big ambition is trying to make a newspaper, and he runs into interesting problems involving paper supply. It's all sort of early tech-geek crunchy and delightful, and the novel is straightforward about the fact that all of this is meant to be fun.

As Padway gains his footing, he becomes most invested in keeping away the chaos and disorder that will lead to the Dark Ages, because he doesn't personally want to live through them. For the duration of the novel, he's trying to fend them off through better communication methods and the occasional "prophecy," all of which is fine until he moves thoroughly onto a larger stage, whereupon the book becomes less interesting to anyone not already invested in the political and military machinations of the later Roman Empire. de Camp's matter-of-fact, no-nonsense style works great when he's talking about actual objects and works less well when he's trying to juggle a big cast and talk about huge political ideas like who should rule an empire.

Then there's also the uncomfortable fact that the novel occasionally dips into off-the-cuff racism and sexism. There's a throwaway line here about a black man being "all eyeballs and teeth" that feels straight out of Gone With the Wind, for one thing, and the novel ends with Padway trying to prevent the spread of Islam and Arabic power because it would be personally inconvenient. The sexism is more pronounced because women are slightly more present--though only slightly, because they appear mostly to elicit a "bitches be crazy" response. Padway has casual sex with a servant before awaking to the grossness of her unbathed body and getting horrified by it, and she later attempts to have him executed for sorcery in revenge; he briefly falls into a passion for a princess and then backpedals frantically when she turns out to have a strong Lady Macbeth streak. The woman he likes most, ultimately, is an educated, sweet girl from a higher-class family, and he considers marrying her only to face resistance and rebound with this gem:

Dorothea was a nice girl, yes, pretty, and reasonably bright. But she was not extraordinary in those respects; there were plenty of others equally attractive. To be frank, Dorothea was a pretty average young woman. And being Italian, she'd probably be fat at thirty-five.

Cool story, bro. He follows this with the conclusion that women are fun but probably more trouble than they're worth while he has important things to do, like saving civilization, and it's just mildly gross. Yes, it's an older book, but this is a kind of girls-have-cooties approach no grown man should have been taking regardless of the time period.

So three to four stars for the fun of the first half and two stars for the slog of the second, with a bonus bad taste in the mouth from the fact that the sexism appears significantly more towards the end than the beginning. It's worth reading, but for me it's only worth reading once.
Profile Image for Charles.
Author 37 books250 followers
October 10, 2016
This is my favorite among the original de Camp stories that I've read. I'd say, 3 and a half stars. A modern man 'slips' back in time to the late Roman era, just before the Dark Ages are set to fall. He has to survive and uses his modern knowledge to do so, and eventually becomes a major player in the timeline as he strives to prevent the "fall of darkness," (i.e., the Dark Ages). It's not high octane adventure but it's probably a fairly realistic depiction of the situation and the age. There are a few unpredictabilities about it. For example *minor spoiler,* he doesn't get the girl. I thought it was a fun and pretty quick read.
Profile Image for Terence.
1,148 reviews382 followers
July 16, 2008
This was one of my favorite books as a child. It quite possibly was a major influence on my subsequent undergraduate and post-graduate careers since it powerfully motivated me to learn all I could about the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines & the historical figures that litter the novel.

It didn't hurt that de Camp is a pretty good writer, too.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,984 reviews1,083 followers
November 26, 2020
By Junior High I'd mastered the techniques of avoiding the attention of parents. "Out of sight, out of mind" was the principle. If Dad saw me, he'd think of something for me to do, something boring, probably stupid, like raking leaves or cutting the lawn. What was important to me, wasn't important to him.

The easiest method was simply to get up and leave before they were up and in their "right" minds. This worked fine during the relatively happy summers back in Meadowdale, but was not so attractive in Park Ridge, where we'd moved in 1962, because I hadn't any real friends. It was particularly unattractive in the winter, when long walks weren't comfortable.

The solution was to go out to the unheated front porch, clothed for a day outside, then to crouch against the interior wall, below the living room windows. On a sunny day it could be quite comfortable to read there.

This was where I read L. Sprague de Camp's alternative history novel, 'Lest Darkness Fall', with great avidity, finishing it in one long crouch. At the time I had no idea it had been written back in the thirties. It certainly didn't seem dated. Instead, it inspired me both with ideas of what I would do if transported to sixth century Rome and with further interest in ancient history.

Oh, as I recall, de Camp forgot one very simple invention: The Romans never came up with the idea of the wheelbarrow.
Profile Image for Brenda Clough.
Author 67 books103 followers
May 15, 2013
One of the first and best really sensible time travel novels of all time. Don't omit to admire the way the hero gets out of all the religious wars of the era he's traveled to.
Profile Image for Cheryl .
8,922 reviews391 followers
February 4, 2019
If I do read, find discussion in Evolution of SF group.
Ok, read. Not my kind of thing, I have to admit. It does make me want to reread Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," though. I also would recommend this to fans of Terry Pratchett. I wonder what historians make of it... I know that I have no idea whether the politics and military strategies make any sense.

I do appreciate that Padway couldn't miraculously solve every engineering problem he set himself. And that he did make a fool of himself a time or two, and that he relied extensively on friends. Still, of course, he's too able to be believable.

I can definitely see why so many others like it. It's definitely funny (consider "that's the closest thing we have to [insert listener's religion here] in my country)," and fun, and exciting (I assume, for those into that kind of thing). It even has a few lovely turns of phrase, like the description of Ravenna including "the thin merciless song of the mosquitoes."

And it's not unbearably sexist, not racist either as far as I can see.

I would like to know where de Camp got the title. And Padway's name, come to think of it.
Profile Image for Pinko Palest.
821 reviews39 followers
June 4, 2018
A revelation. I feel sad because I did't know that this wonderful book even existed up until a few days ago. It's a great story, with full attention going to historical detail (this is what Rome in the 6th century AD seems to have been really like), but also insanely funny. The second part of the book doesn't seem to be as funny, though it is still gripping. In this instance, the comparison with Mark Twain seems to be more than valid
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books190 followers
March 21, 2022
Martin Padway is an archaeologist in Rome who gets struck by lightning on page 4 and transported back in time 1400 years. Padway spends the rest of the novel revealing anachronism after anachronism to try and stave off the imminent "Dark Ages" by changing the course of the Gothic Wars and thus late Roman history. That he does so with breezy ease and aplomb is part of the airy charm of this rather insane little time travel novel. Paradoxes and logic are thrown to the winds as Martin invents printing presses, banking, and telegraphs to chart the course of his new, personal, alternate timeline. That the inherent contradiction, temporally, anyway, is hardly given a thought is helped along by de Camp's zany sense of humor, making this read more like a Monty Python-penned episode of Doctor Who which is, of course, awesome.
Quick and fun, more like 3.5 stars!
Profile Image for Jim Reddy.
165 reviews4 followers
January 27, 2023
Archeologist Martin Padway finds himself transported back in time to post-Imperial Rome. Using his knowledge of science and history, he attempts to stop the coming of the Dark Ages.

Padway’s plans are original and creative. He starts a business making brandy, introduces algebra, bookkeeping, and printing among other innovations. He meets a variety of historical figures. Things often don’t go as originally planned though so he winds up having to improvise a lot.

Some of the situations were serious and some were quite funny. There was a lot more humor than I was expecting and I enjoyed it. Whenever he’s asked what religion he is, Padway, who is agnostic, stays out of trouble by answering, “I’m a Congregationalist. That’s the nearest thing we have to (insert the religion of the person he’s talking to) in your country.”

Padway does his best to stay away from warfare but eventually he decides he has to get involved to try and keep the peace. Once again things don’t go as planned which leads to a big battle at the end.

As it was written in 1941 some ideas in the book come across as dated, but overall this was a fun and interesting read.
Profile Image for Glenn Schmelzle.
184 reviews14 followers
August 25, 2016
Plot summary:
Martin Padway, mild-mannered archaeologist, is visiting Rome when he is thrust backwards in time... all the way back to the sixth century A.D. Rome, inhabited largely with Goths at this time, is under seige from multiple groups. As history tells, the downfall of Rome threw the western world into the Dark Ages. Martin can't bear to see all Rome's knowledge & progress be lost for 1,000 years, so he sets about to forestall the Dark Ages. But can history be changed?
Martin starts by applying his knowledge of history and spoken Latin to survive and earn some money. He starts by befriending powerful people amd introducing various inventions, which make him him more popular. These include his banker, a bodyguard, a bookkeeper and the Goth king. He easily beats some foreign army units and tries by diplomatic means to defuse the fearsome enemies that are looking to take over Italy. These efforts climax in a battle with forces from the East that push them off the Italian peninsula. The book ends with Martin introducing tons of reforms and technologies - everything from the 11th century's Magna Carta to 17th century mercantilism. I can see sequels exploring this quirky alternate world!

de Camp's tactic of creating a whole alternate history novel based on our own past gave him the ability to skip a lot of world building and let the reader fill in 'the rest of the story.' I liked how Martin's friend Tancredi's theory is used. It says that you can change history without causing paradoxes.

I have to admit I find the subject matter interesting, my undergraduate degree is in Classics. I'm pleased to say I couldn't find any blatant errors with de Camp's history. However, those who are not familiar with the era & geography may have trouble following the history; de Camp is at home in this setting thanks to his classical studies. An instance of this is how de Camp doesn't explain how repelling Justinian's Eastern Empire secures civilization's future. Guess de Camp expects the reader to know historically how Justinian's success hastened the Dark Ages. Unlike HG Wells' story of a time machine, the main character doesn't get to run back for 3 books that could help him; he has to rely on memory, which is enough to make me want to brush up on my Gibbon!

I liked how Martin stumbled upon books by then-current authors that haven't made it down to the present day. I also liked how he tried to increase their chance of survival by creating a press to produce lots of copies.

Finally, Martin doesn't set out to become a hero - Tancredi's theory also implies that you can't just be an observer; so by going to a different time, Martin was pushed into situations where his mere presence impacts surroundings. So Martin wound up changing history even when he tried not to.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Gregory.
20 reviews7 followers
August 6, 2008
I read this book twice. The first time was years ago and I read it just because it by L. Sprague. I thought it was o.k., I then put it on the bookshelf where it collected dust for a few years. Over the past few years I have been seized by what could almost be called a mania about ancient rome, my bookshelf here on goodreads has most of what I've read on the subject, which has been about 80% of my reading lately. I was between books in Coleen McCullough's wonderful "Masters Of Rome" series (finished with "Fortune's Favourite's", waiting for the library to get "Caesar's Women")when I remembered this slim little paperback written by 'ol L. Sprague and I remembered the setting (Rome) and proceeded to read it again. What a great book! The setting is exquisitely accurate and the characters are very well drawn. The Belisarius in "Lest Darkness Fall" is just about identical to the man in "Count Belisarius". The main character (Martin Paduway) is nicely realistic in his quest to reinvent technologies that existed in his own time and does find that several thing that he wanted to "invent" are indeed beyond him. This book is very well researched as well as entertaining and is a very pleasant diversion for anyone interested in ancient history.
Profile Image for Octavio Villalpando.
530 reviews19 followers
February 5, 2022
Muy entretenida obra de Ciencia Ficción acerca de un viajero en el tiempo muy atípico, con no pocos toques de comedia aquí y allá. Mas que la cuestión científica de como dicho viaje era posible, el autor se dedicó a hacer un recorrido por ciertos acontecimientos históricos del pasado europeo, imaginando lo que podría pasar si de repente fuera posible acceder a un poco de conocimiento avanzado para la época.

Entonces, no hay que hacer mucho caso del "ps no sé wey, simplemente pasó" con el que nuestro protagonista aparece de repente en el pasado (al menos no es porque un mono corrió muy rápido como en ciertas películas de héroes), sino en las peripecias de nuestro héroe por tratar de poner las cosas a su favor, sin importarle si eso podría arruinar el futuro, ya que, y en esto si se recurre a posibilidad establecidas por la ciencia (y aprovechadas por otras películas de héroes de la competencia de la del wey que corre muy rápido), estableciendo de este modo el concepto de "multi-verso", lo cual no está nada mal si tomamos en cuenta de que se trata de una obra publicada en ¡1939!

Es una obra muy divertida en todo sentido, además, resulta muy interesante el repaso histórico que hace al autor, así como las posibilidades que se desarrollan.

La edición del FCE de México es realmente barata, menos de $ 100.00 MXN, así que no hay excusa para no disfrutarla.
Profile Image for Checkman.
503 reviews75 followers
June 23, 2018
One of the early AH novels. I read many of de Camp's work when I was in middle school and high school, but it's been over thirty years since I picked up one of his novels. "Lest Darkness Falls" is considered a classic and it is a very entertaining read. What I liked is that our protagonist knows some things (future technology), but he is limited and some of which he attempts fails. It's a nice contrast to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" in which our protagonist is perfect. He is an engineer and all of his inventions work and the people (ancients) are gullible idiots...…….. at least that's how it seemed to me when I read it back in college. That isn't the case in "Lest Darkness Falls". The book isn't perfect though. it starts off strong, but about half-way through gets bogged down in the politics. also there are one too many narrow escapes for our hero and that becomes tiresome as well.

However do not forget that the novel started as a short story in 1939 and then turned into a novel in 1941. Writing styles and readers change over seventy seventy-five years. This is an early alternative history novel and from the era of pulp science fiction. With that in mind it's not a bad book. I give it three stars.
Profile Image for John.
Author 270 books158 followers
July 3, 2010
I read this in the SFBC edition of the undated (but obviously very much later) Ballantine reissue of de Camp's 1949 revision of the book -- the one whose cover I instantly recognized because it was done by my sadly deceased pal Ron Walotsky. Whatever, any page numbers I might cite are almost certain to differ from those in the copy of the book you have on your own shelves. Either Ballantine or the SFBC or both clearly thought it would be wastefully effete to bother proofreading this reissue, tra-la: aren't publishers such wags?

Being driven through bustling modern (well, 1930s) Rome by an Italian friend, Martin Padway is discussing the nature of time with that friend. On getting out of the car, he's struck by a bolt of lightning and transported back to Rome in the year AD535. Once there he adapts fairly quickly, using his rudimentary memories of schoolboy classical Latin (those were the educational days, eh?) to get around and his knowledge of as-yet-unelapsed near-future (to the Romans) history and much later technology to build a prosperous life for himself. It soon dawns on him that Italy is on the verge of the invasion that will snuff out the light of civilization for the long centuries of the Dark Ages, and he determines to avert this human disaster and change the course of history for the better, a task that involves his introducing bits of technology (like the printing press) long ahead of their time, politically manipulating the various factions of Italy's Gothic masters, and at one stage even become Italy's de facto king. In other words, he becomes a sort of Coyote figure using tricksterism with relish but toward, in this instance, a good end -- much like the protagonist of Eric Frank Russell's much later Wasp (1957), a novel of which I was constantly reminded while reading this one, even though de Camp lacked Russell's storytelling ability and wry wit.

I remember not liking this book much when I read it forty years ago or more, and I discovered I still didn't like it much. My mild sense of tedium became an active dislike when, on pp159-60, I came across a bit of plotting that de Camp obviously thought was hilarious and which is in fact disgustingly racist; I tried to justify it through the usual "product of his times" arguments, and couldn't. Worse still, it relies on a particular form of racism which, so far as my limited knowledge of history informs me, would have been regarded with blank incomprehension in 6th-century Rome. Most of the time, though, I found the text just a bit mediocre: I turned the pages because I wanted to get to the end of the book, not because of any avid need to find out what happened.

There was one really top-notch bit of plus ca change, though. Padway discovers that 6th-century Rome suffers from a bad infestation of religion. Here he is, early on (pp25-6), chatting with an Orthodox Christian he's met in a pub:

"You don't like the Goths?"

"No! Not with the persecution we have to put up with!"

"Persecution?" Padway raised his eyebrows.

"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!"

"You mean that you're persecuted because the heretics and such are not?"

"Certainly, isn't that obvious?"

It's like something you expect to hear from Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter, or read in one of those ghastly action alerts the American Family Association keep sending me . . .
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Mark.
929 reviews88 followers
March 29, 2018
What would you do if you were suddenly transported in time? This is the adventure thrust upon Martin Padway, an American archaeologist in 1938 Rome who is struck by a lightning bolt sends him over 1400 years in the past. Stuck in a city and an Italy that had seen better days and equipped with little more than his wits, he struggles at first to survive and then to prevent the onset of the “Dark Ages” by using his knowledge of history to change events. Before long he finds himself drawn into Italian politics and facing a war that threatens both Italy’s future and his own.

Such is the scenario of L. Sprague de Camp’s novel, a classic of science fiction and one of the seminal works of the alternate history genre. That it has attained this status is due to de Camp’s skills as an author. Once he moves from the premise he constructs a plausible scenario with many believable characters. Unlike all too many other authors working within the genre, he does not overwhelm the reader with trivial details designed to show off how much research he has done. Instead he wears his knowledge lightly, using it to give the reader just enough to set the scene and move the plot but keeping the focus on the story and the characters.

Yet perhaps the greatest factor in the novel’s success is de Camp’s sense of fun. Rather than overwhelming his protagonist with a pretentious sense of responsibility to the past, he lets Padway run wild. Once he fixes upon his goal of remaking 6th century Rome into 20th century America, Padway has no qualms with trampling upon the past, using his foreknowledge and technical skills to change dramatically the course of history. Dramatic, even seismic shifts, are accomplished with the stroke of a pen, and he even goes so far as to initiate European contact with America solely for the purpose of acquiring tobacco. This light-hearted approach makes the book a pleasure to read, and one that continues to overshadow so many of the works that have followed in its path.
Profile Image for Kathy Burford.
Author 3 books2 followers
July 15, 2015
Often considered L. Sprague de Camp’s best book, Lest Darkness Fall is science fantasy rather than science fiction, concerned with the past. Archaeologist Martin Padway is abruptly transported from twentieth-century Rome to what he learns is the Roman year 1288 Anno Urbis Conditae: the first half of the sixth century AD. Fortunately he knows both classical Latin and Italian and stumbles through by using an ersatz language supposedly halfway between the two. Rome is a complex stew of ethnicities and competing religions (which provide a running joke on religious arguments). Martin would like to stave off the oncoming dark ages, so he starts reinventing useful things (using Roman materials) and interferes with history (he knows what’s coming from his reading of Procopius, among others). The story is more fully developed than some of the Harold Shea stories and has some more complicated characters. Highly recommended for lovers of humorous/light fantasy.

Profile Image for jennifer.
280 reviews16 followers
February 1, 2010
20th Century Archeologist Martin Padway suddenly finds himself transported back to Ancient Rome on the eve of the Dark Ages. He decides to try and head off the fall of Rome.
I found this book tiring. The writing isn't so great and I began to wonder if it had been meant for children, and maybe it was, as it was written in the late '30's, when science fiction was very popular with children. My problem was the almost complete lack of inner dialogue. Padway is caught in a sudden thunderstorm and POOF! he's now two thousand years back in time. There's really no exploration of how he feels about it, if he's frightened, worried, elated. He doesn't even set about trying to get back- instead, his first thought is to find a money exchanger! It's this lack of emotion in the characters that made reading this a real grind. **
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews324 followers
September 8, 2010
A historian, Martin Padway, is transported to Rome of 500AD and proceeds to introduce inventions (like the printing press, Arabic numerals) and innovations to prevent the Fall of Rome and the inception of the Dark Ages. This is an engaging mixture of time-travel and alternate history--in fact, given it was written in 1939, it might possibly have invented the genre of alternate history. I particularly found amusing the picture of all the different Christian sects. De Camp appears to have done his research and though the book doesn't get high points for literary style or engaging my emotions deeply, it does make for a fascinating and entertaining portrait of a turning point in history and how a man with the right technological and political levers could have made a difference.
Profile Image for Al "Tank".
339 reviews54 followers
November 21, 2018
My copy is about a hundred years old (Ballentine 1974), but the words are the same.

Modern guy with a classical education gets sucked into the past (6th Century Rome) and manages to survive at first. Then decides to stave off the coming dark ages. To do so, he has to drag the rulers out of their bad habits and introduce some changes before their time. It's not easy. He has to deal with Goths, Italians, Visi-goths, Franks, and other militant groups.

It's a great yarn and well-written. My knowledge of the period is sadly lacking, but this gave me a glimpse into the history of the time. It ended too soon (I wanted more).
279 reviews7 followers
September 7, 2007
It's hard to decide whether to rate it 9/10 or 10/10. It's fast-paced, entertaining, and thought-provoking, but it *does* get rather bogged down by the end, and I found it hard to keep track of the characters.

Overall, though, it's excellent for what it does, and is deservedly known as a classic.
Profile Image for Alexander.
187 reviews13 followers
December 29, 2019
One of my favorite books ever, and my introduction into the sub-genre that is alternate history. A wonderfully creative and intriguing book about one man's efforts to turn the tide of history and save civilization. Fun, humorous, smart and a pure pleasure.
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