Like New Year’s resolutions, Vintage Science Fiction Month ideally should be started in December. First up for me is a review of L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall.
They had me at double-entry accounting. Seriously. The entire reason I kept an eye out for this book every time I set foot in a used bookstore was because I read somewhere that it was an alternate history where the protagonist introduced double-entry accounting to a post-empire Rome. It is indeed that and much more, deserving its reputation as one of the great early works of alternate history.
Martin Padway is an American archaeologist visiting Rome during the present day (1938 at the time). By mysterious means, he finds himself in Rome in 535, on the eve of the Gothic War. Uniquely suited by his education and training to the task, he sets about working to avert the dark ages by changing the result of the war and allowing a unified, post-empire Italy to survive.
de Camp makes no real effort to explain the time jump. There is a short framing device, then, *POW*, Padway finds himself in Rome. Once there, he spends little time questioning how he got there or worrying about getting back, instead quickly setting about attempting to avert the Dark Ages. Which is fine, because I don’t particularly care about how he got there. That isn’t why I picked up the book.
Padway’s background means he shows up able to haltingly speak the language and that he has great knowledge of what is supposed to happen in the Italian peninsula in 535 and the years afterward. It is very convenient he has that knowledge, but convenience is usually a good thing. A book in which I travel to Rome in 535 would be short and boring.
de Camp doesn’t waste time in getting Padway to Rome, but he does spend a lot of time on Padway getting established in Rome. He will eventually lead armies and intervene in political decisions, but his initial goals are more prosaic. To accomplish anything, he will need to stay alive and make some money.
He settles on introducing improved distillation. Giving people hard liquor probably isn’t the best way to advance society, but he needs a source of income. Before he can get that, he needs capital. Hence the role of double-entry accounting. He trades double-entry accounting to a banker in exchange for the capital to start his distilling business.
A good chunk of the book gets chewed up here, but it is some of the best stuff in the book. Padway’s success inevitably attracts the attention of the authorities. He buys them off by reorganizing the business as a proto-corporation and giving them shares. The authorities, of course, are unable to grasp that Padway is creating real value, assuming instead that it simply must be some sort of scam but not caring so long as they get a cut.
To avoid spoilers, I will avoid talking about the plot once Padway’s ambitions grow. I was amused to see that de Camp picks up and discards one hoary trope of alternate history. Padway tries to make gunpowder but, despite knowing the basic formula, can never quite get it right.
As with The Tritonian Ring, de Camp’s erudition shows through and proves a major strength for the book, granting it a valuable verisimilitude. On the other hand, de Camp isn’t funny, at all, and his attempts at humor all fell flat for me.
4 of 5 Stars.
Vintage Science Fiction Month comes every year, right after Santa. The gist is simple: read speculative fiction written before 1980 (or the year you were born) and write about it in January. Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer.