Lest Darkness Fall

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Lest Darkness Fall
Lest darkness fall holt.jpg
Dust cover of first edition
Author L. Sprague de Camp
Country United States
Language English
Genre Alternate history
Publisher Henry Holt and Company
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback)
Pages 379 pp

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 earliest and most influential. Prominent alternate history author Harry Turtledove has said it sparked his interest in the genre as well as his desire to study Byzantine history.[1]

Publication history[edit]

A shorter version was first published as a short story in Unknown #10, December 1939. It was published as a complete novel by Henry Holt and Company in 1941 and reprinted by both Galaxy Publishing and Prime Press in 1949. The first British edition was published in hardcover by Heinemann in 1955. The first paperback edition was published by Pyramid Books in February 1963 and reprinted in August 1969. A later paperback edition was issued by Ballantine Books in August 1974 and reprinted in 1975, 1979 and 1983; the Ballantine edition was also issued in hardcover by the Science Fiction Book Club in April 1979 and reprinted in 1996. The importance of the work was recognized by its inclusion in The Easton Press's The Masterpieces of Science Fiction series in 1989.[2] The book has also been collected with David Drake's novella "To Bring the Light" in Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring The Light (Baen Books, 1996), with other works by de Camp in Years in the Making: the Time-Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp (NESFA Press, 2005),[2] and with works by other authors in Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories (Phoenix Pick, 2011). An E-book edition was published by Gollancz's SF Gateway imprint on September 29, 2011 as part of a general release of de Camp's works in electronic form.[3][4] Galaxy's Edge magazine reprinted Lest Darkness Fall over four issues starting in August 2014, repeating a typographical error that appears in Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories ("have" for "lave" in Padway's seduction scene).

Plot summary[edit]

Lest Darkness Fall is similar in concept to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938. A thunderstorm arrives, lightning cracks, and he finds himself transported to Rome in the year 535 AD. At this time, the region of Italy is under the rule of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths. The novel depicts their rule as a benevolent despotism, allowing freedom of religion and maintaining the urban Roman society they had conquered.

In the real timeline, the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire temporarily expanded westwards, embarking on what came to be known as the Gothic War (535–554). They overthrew the Ostrogoths and the Vandals in north Africa, but this war devastated the Italian urbanized society that was supported by a settled hinterland, and by the end of the conflict Italy was considerably depopulated: its population is estimated to have decreased from 7 million to 2.5 million people. The great cities of Rome were abandoned; the Byzantines never fully consolidated their rule over Italy, which faced further invasions by the Lombards, and Italy fell into a long period of decline. Some historians consider this the true beginning of the Dark Ages in Italy.

Padway initially wonders if he is dreaming or delusional, but 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 teaches his clerks Arabic numerals and double entry bookkeeping. Padway eventually develops a printing press, issues newspapers, and builds a crude semaphore telegraph system utilizing small telescopes. However, his attempts to reproduce mechanical clocks, gunpowder, and cannons are failures. He becomes increasingly involved in the politics of the state as Italy is invaded by the Imperials and also threatened from the south and east.

Padway rescues the recently deposed Thiudahad and becomes his quaestor. He uses the king's support to gather forces to defeat the formidable Imperial general Belisarius. Padway manages to surprise Belisarius with tactics never used in the ancient world. Then, deceiving the Dalmatian army, Padway reinstates the senile Thiudahad and imprisons King Wittigis as a hostage. In 537, when Wittigis is killed and Thiudahad descends into madness, Padway has a protégé of his (Urias) married off to Mathaswentha, then crowned king of the Ostrogoths. He also tricks Justinian I into releasing Belisarius from his oath of allegiance, and quickly enlists the military genius to command an army against the Franks.

The landing of an Imperial army at Vibo led by Bloody John, and a rebellion led by the son of Thiudahad, threaten the Ostrogothic kingdom and its army is destroyed at Crathis Valley. Padway assembles a new force, spreads an "emancipation proclamation" to the Italian serfs, and recalls Belisarius after his defeat of the Franks. The armies clash near Calatia and then Benevento. Despite the lack of discipline of his Gothic forces, some simple tactical tricks and the nick-of-time arrival of Belisarius secure Padway's victory.

At the end of the novel Padway has stabilized the Italo-Gothic kingdom, introduced a constitution, arranged the end of serfdom, liberated the Burgunds, and is having boats built for an Atlantic expedition (Padway wants tobacco). The king of the Visigoths has appointed Urias as his heir, reunifying the Goths. Ultimately, due to Padway's actions, Europe will not experience what Age of Enlightenment thinkers retroactively called the Dark Ages: "darkness will not fall".

Main characters[edit]

  • Martin Padway (self-Latinized as Martinus Paduei) – Protagonist. Transported from 1938 Rome to its 535 equivalent.
  • Nevitta Gummund's son – Gothic farmer, Padway's best friend in ancient Rome.
  • Thomasus the Syrian – Banker and confidant of Padway. Often invokes God's name, especially while bickering.
  • Fritharik – Deposed Vandal noble, who becomes Padway's bodyguard and right-hand man. Often laments the loss of his beautiful Carthage estate and remarks that they will eventually all end up in unmarked graves.
  • Liuderis, commander of the Goths' garrison in Rome.
  • Count Honorius – city prefect.
  • Thiudahad – King of the Ostrogoths and Italians. He is deposed and replaced by Wittigis, but is brought back under Padway's influence.
  • Urias – Nephew of Wittigis and an ally of Padway's. Becomes king (with Padway's help) after Thiudahad is no longer fit to rule.
  • Thiudegiskel – Son of Thiudahad.
  • Mathaswentha – Daughter of Amalswentha, and love interest for Padway. Their brief romance is cut short when she decides, to Padway's horror, to have any competition killed. Padway sets her up with Urias, whom she marries.
  • Dorothea – daughter of Cornelius Anicius, and the other love interest for Padway.
  • Belisarius – General of the Eastern Roman Empire. Eventually persuaded by Padway to join the Gothic army.
  • Julia from Apulia – a servant hired by Padway who has a one-night stand with him.
  • Leo Vekkos – Greek physician called in by Nevitta, against Padway's protests, to treat his cold.

Related works[edit]

Direct responses to this story include the stories "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass" by Frederik Pohl,[5] and "The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson.[6] In the Pohl tale, a man travels back to 1 BC and teaches modern medicine, causing a population explosion. It ends with the fantastically overpopulated alternate timeline sending someone back to assassinate the title character, allowing darkness to fall for thankful billions. It was reprinted in Harry Turtledove's 2005 tribute anthology honoring L. Sprague de Camp, The Enchanter Completed and the 2011 anthology Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories. The Anderson piece is a tale of an American airman sent by a storm (like Padway) to Saga Age Iceland; the story deals with the effect of his innovations.

A short story sequel to Lest Darkness Fall, "The Apotheosis of Martin Padway", written by S. M. Stirling, appeared in Harry Turtledove's 2005 tribute anthology honoring L. Sprague de Camp, The Enchanter Completed and the 2011 anthology Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories. It offers glimpses of what might have become of the reality Padway altered, both during his old age and a few hundred years later.

Another story inspired by Lest Darkness Fall is "To Bring The Light", by David Drake, published together with the original in the 1996 Baen double Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring The Light and the 2011 anthology Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories. This story features Flavia Herosilla, a well-educated woman living in ancient Rome at its height. Like Padway, she is sent back in time by a lightning strike, in her case to the era of Rome's beginnings around 751 BC. Unlike Padway, who tries to change history, Flavia tries to recreate the founding of Rome based on the legends that she knows.

Several editions of Lest Darkness Fall, including the one printed with "To Bring the Light", repeat an error in the sequence where Padway and Julia from Apulia are setting up their one night stand: In the original text a somewhat inebriated Padway says Julia's dirty feet form a barrier and "I must lave the pedal extremities...". Apparently some editor failed to recognize "lave" as a synonym for "wash", and turned the word into "have."

Critical reactions[edit]

Jo Walton wrote: "In 1939, L. Sprague de Camp came up with one of the wonderful ideas of science fiction, the man taken out of his time to a time of lower technology ... As soon as Padway’s there, he puts his head down and starts to concentrate on what makes these books such fun—improvising technology from what he knows and can find around him. Padway starts with distilling and double-entry bookkeeping and makes his way up to newspapers and heliographs. ... The more you know history, the more you can see how clever the book is. ... De Camp was a historian of technology. His The Ancient Engineers (1963) is a ... fascinating non-fiction book."[7]

Boucher and McComas praised the novel as "a witty version of the Connecticut Yankee theme, distinguished by its lore of Gothic Rome."[8] Algis Budrys termed it "marvelous," rating it as "Maybe the best [book] DeCamp ever wrote."[9] P. Schuyler Miller wrote that "Next to Wells's "Time Machine", this could be the best time-travel novel ever written."[10]



  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 95. 
  • Laughlin, Charlotte; Daniel J. H. Levack (1983). De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography. San Francisco: Underwood/Miller. pp. 72–75. 

External links[edit]