L. Sprague de Camp

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L. Sprague de Camp
L. Sprague de Camp.png
L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp at Nolacon II in 1988
Born Lyon Sprague de Camp
(1907-11-27)November 27, 1907
New York City, New York, USA
Died November 6, 2000(2000-11-06) (aged 92)
Plano, Texas, USA
Pen name Lyman R. Lyon (one story)[1]
Occupation Novelist, short story author, essayist, historian
Nationality American
Period 1937–1996
Genres Science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, historical fiction, history

Lyon Sprague de Camp (November 27, 1907 – November 6, 2000) was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy, non-fiction and biography. In a career spanning 60 years, he wrote over 100 books, including novels and notable works of non-fiction, including 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."[2]


De Camp was born in New York City, one of three sons of Lyon de Camp and Emma Beatrice Sprague. His maternal grandfather was the accountant, banker, pioneering Volapükist and Civil War veteran Charles Ezra Sprague.[3] De Camp once noted that he rarely used pen-names, "partly because my own true name sounds more like a pseudonym than most pseudonyms do."[4]

An aeronautical engineer by profession, De Camp conducted his undergraduate studies at the California Institute of Technology (where his roommate was at one point noted rocket fuel scientist John Drury Clark), and earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Caltech in Aeronautical Engineering 1930.[5] He earned his Master of Science degree in Engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1933. De Camp was also a surveyor and an expert in patents.[2]

In 1939, de Camp married Catherine Crook, with whom he collaborated on science fiction and nonfiction beginning in the 1960s.[2]

L. Sprague de Camp (center) with Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov

During World War II, de Camp served as a researcher at the Philadelphia Naval Yard along with his fellow writers Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. De Camp eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy as a reserve officer.

De Camp was a member of the all-male literary and dining club the "Trap Door Spiders" in New York City, which served as the basis of Asimov's fictional group of mystery solvers the "Black Widowers". De Camp himself was the model for the character named "Geoffrey Avalon".[6]

De Camp was a founding member of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA), a loosely-knit group of Heroic fantasy writers that was founded during the 1960s and led by Lin Carter, with entry by credentials as a fantasy writer alone.

The de Camps moved to Plano, Texas, in 1989. Sprague de Camp died there on November 6, 2000, seven months after his wife, on what would have been her birthday, just three weeks before his own 93rd birthday. His ashes were inurned, together with hers, in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

De Camp's personal library of about 1,200 books was acquired for auction by Half Price Books in 2005. The collection included books inscribed by fellow writers, such as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, as well as de Camp himself.[7]


De Camp was a materialist who wrote works examining society, history, technology and myth. He published numerous short stories, novels, non-fiction works and poems during his long career.

De Camp had the mind of an educator, and a common theme in many of his works is a corrective impulse regarding similar previous works by other authors. A highly rational and logical thinker, he was frequently disturbed by what he regarded as logical lapses and absurdities in others' writings. Thus, his response to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was to write a similar time travel novel (Lest Darkness Fall) in which the method of time travel was rationalized and the hero's technical expertise both set at a believable level and constrained by the technological limitations of the age.

In like fashion, he reimagined space opera and planetary romance in his "Viagens Interplanetarias" series, and the prehistoric precursor civilizations characteristic of much heroic fantasy in his "Pusadian series". When he was not debunking literary conventions he was often explaining them. For example, in the "Harold Shea" stories co-written with his longtime friend Fletcher Pratt (1897–1956), the magical premises of some bodies of myths and legends were accepted but examined and elucidated in terms of their own systems of inherent logic. De Camp's explanatory tendency also carried over into his non-fictional writings.

Science fiction[edit]

De Camp's science fiction is marked by his interests in linguistics, ancient history, and the history and philosophy of science.[8][9][10] His first published story was "The Isolinguals", in the September 1937 issue of Astounding Science Fiction—the last issue edited by F. Orlin Tremaine, prior to the long tenure of John W. Campbell.[1] Most of his early science fiction stories were unrelated to each other, the exceptions being his "Johnny Black" tales about a black bear uplifted to human-level intelligence, and his "Drinkwhiskey Institute" stories, a series of tall tales involving time travel.

De Camp's most highly regarded works[clarification needed] in the genre are his time travel and alternate history stories, including Lest Darkness Fall (1939), "The Wheels of If" (1940), "A Gun for Dinosaur" (1956), "Aristotle and the Gun" (1958), and The Glory That Was (1960) – in the last of which the "time travel" actually turns out to be a tour de force of historical recreation. Lest Darkness Fall, "The Wheels of If" and "Aristotle and the Gun" have been recognized as seminal works in the field of alternate history.[11]

His most extended work was his "Viagens Interplanetarias" series, set in a future where Brazil is the dominant power, particularly a subseries of sword and planet novels set on the planet Krishna, beginning with The Queen of Zamba.[8] His most influential Viagens novel was the non-Krishna work Rogue Queen, a tale of a hive society undermined by interstellar contact, which was one of the earliest science fiction novels to deal with sexual themes.

De Camp wrote a number of lesser-known but nonetheless significant works that explored such topics as racism, which he considered to be more accurately described as ethnocentrism. He pointed out that no scholar comparing the merits of various ethnicities has ever sought to prove that his own ethnicity was inferior to others.[12]


De Camp was best known for his light fantasy, particularly two series written in collaboration with Pratt, the Harold Shea stories (from 1940 et seq.) and "Gavagan's Bar" (from 1950).[1] De Camp and Pratt also wrote some stand-alone novels similar in tone to the Harold Shea stories, of which the most highly regarded is Land of Unreason (1942), and de Camp wrote a few more of this genre on his own.

He was also known for his sword and sorcery, a fantasy genre revived partly by his editorial work on and continuation of Robert E. Howard's "Conan" cycle.[2] He also edited a series of fantasy anthologies credited with helping to spark the renaissance of heroic fantasy in the late 1960s.[13]

De Camp also created three noteworthy sword and sorcery sequences. The "Pusadian series" (from 1951), composed of the novel The Tritonian Ring and several short stories, is set in an antediluvian era similar to Howard's.

More substantial is the "Novarian series" (from 1968), of which the core is the Reluctant King trilogy, beginning with The Goblin Tower, de Camp's most accomplished effort in the genre. The trilogy features the adventurer Jorian, ex-king of Xylar. Jorian's world is an alternate reality to which our own serves as an afterlife. Other novels in the sequence include The Fallible Fiend, a satire told from the point of view of a demon, and The Honorable Barbarian, a follow-up to the trilogy featuring Jorian's brother as the hero.

The Incorporated Knight series comprises some 1970s stories by de Camp and two novels by L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp, The Incorporated Knight (1988) and The Pixilated Peeress (1991).[1] It is set in the medieval era of another alternate world sharing the geography of our own, but in which a Neapolitan empire filled the role of Rome and no universal religion like Christianity ever arose, leaving its nations split among competing pagan sects. The setting is borrowed in part from Mandeville's Travels.

Historical fiction[edit]

De Camp also wrote historical fiction set in the era of classical antiquity from the height of the Persian Empire to the waning of the Hellenistic period. Five novels published by Doubleday from 1958 to 1969[1] form a loosely-connected series based on their common setting and occasional cross references. They were also linked by a common focus on the advancement of scientific knowledge, de Camp's chosen protagonists being explorers, artisans, engineers, innovators and practical philosophers rather than famous names from antiquity, who are relegated to secondary roles. The best known of his historical novels is The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate.


De Camp's first book was Inventions and Their Management, co-written with Alf K. Berle and published by International Textbook Company in 1937: a 733-page book with three-page list of law cases cited.[1][14] He enjoyed debunking doubtful history and pseudoscientific claims about the supernatural. He explained how ancient civilizations produced structures and architecture that many considered to be impossible for them, such as the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt. Works in this area include Lost Continents, Citadels of Mystery, and The Ancient Engineers.

Some others of his many and wide-ranging nonfiction works were The Great Monkey Trial (about the Scopes Trial), The Ragged Edge of Science, Energy and Power, The Heroic Age of American Invention, The Day of the Dinosaur (which argued, among other things, that evolution took hold after Darwin because of the Victorian interest spurred by recently popularized dinosaur remains, corresponding to legends of dragons), and The Evolution of Naval Weapons (a U.S. government textbook).

De Camp's pioneering biographies of fantasy writers were many short articles and full-length studies of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, the first major independent biographies of both writers. His "warts and all" approach to his subjects has been branded by some fans as unflattering and unbalanced. For instance, Mark Finn, author of Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, contends that de Camp deliberately framed his questions in regard to Howard to elicit answers matching his Freudian theories about him.[15]

Awards and honors[edit]

De Camp and Willy Ley won the 1953 International Fantasy Award for nonfiction recognizing their study of geographical myths, Lands Beyond (Rinehart, 1952).[8][16] De Camp was a guest of honor at the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention[2] and was named the third Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy, after Tolkien and Fritz Leiber, at the 1976 convention.[16] The Science Fiction Writers of America made him its fourth SFWA Grand Master in 1979[17] and he won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1984,[16] a Special Achievement Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 1996, citing "seminal works in the field",[11] and the Hugo Award for Nonfiction in 1997 for his autobiography, Time and Chance.[2][16]

In popular culture[edit]

L. Sprague de Camp has been depicted in fictional works by a number of other authors. Randall Garrett conflated him with J.R.R. Tolkien's Gandalf in the character of the magician "Sir Lyon Gandolphus Gray" in his Lord Darcy series. He was the model for the "Geoffrey Avalon" character in Isaac Asimov's fictional group of mystery solvers the "Black Widowers".[6] He also appears without fictional disguise in S. M. Stirling's 2008 alternate history novel In the Courts of the Crimson Kings and Paul Malmont's 2011 historical novel The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown.

Selected works[edit]

This selection is limited to books.

Science fiction[edit]




See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g L. Sprague de Camp at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Retrieved 2013-04-12. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "L. S. de Camp, 92, Author Of Over 100 Fantasy Novels." Obituary in The New York Times, November 11, 2000, p. C16.
  3. ^ De Camp, L. Sprague. "Talking to Ghosts". The New York Times, April 7, 1985, p. SM38.
  4. ^ De Camp, L. Sprague. Science-Fiction Handbook (New York: Hermitage Press, 1953), p. 177.
  5. ^ "Caltech Commencement Program". Caltech Campus Publications (Caltech). June 13, 1930. Retrieved 2013-03-29. 
  6. ^ a b Asimov, Isaac. I. Asimov: a Memoir (New York, Doubleday, 1994), chapter 120 "The Trap Door Spiders".
  7. ^ Weeks, Jerome. "De Camp library for sale ". The Dallas Morning News, October 24, 2005, p. 3G.
  8. ^ a b c Power, Colleen. "DeCamp, L. (Lyon) Sprague". Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Science Fiction (Chicago, American Library Association, 1989), pp. 170-74.
  9. ^ Laughlin, Charlotte, and Levack, Daniel J. H. De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography. San Francisco, Underwood/Miller, 1983, page 192.
  10. ^ Knight, David, ed. First Flight: Maiden Voyages in Space and Time, New York, Lancer Books, 1963, p. 9.
  11. ^ a b "Past Winners and Finalists". Sidewise Awards for Alternate History (uchronia.net). Retrieved 2013-04-23. This was a Special Achievement award "for seminal works in the field" among the first annual Sidewise Awards in 1996 (generally recognizing 1995 publications).
  12. ^ De Camp, L. Sprague. "The Breeds of Man", Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact, April 1976.
  13. ^ Stableford, Brian M. "L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt". Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, ed. Everett F. Bleiler (New York, Scribner, 1985), vol. 2, p. 929.
  14. ^ a b "Inventions and their management" (first edition). Library of Congress Catalog Record. Retrieved 2013-04-12.
  15. ^ Murphy, Brian. "Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard: A review". October 16, 2008.
  16. ^ a b c d "de Camp, L. Sprague". The Locus Index to SF Awards: Index of Literary Nominees. Locus Publications. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
  17. ^ "Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Retrieved 2013-04-02.

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