Vintage SF Month: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp

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.

We might also question whether the Dark Ages were quite as dark as we once thought, and whether a strong, unified Italy is necessarily a good thing.

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.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
This entry was posted in Alternate History, Book Reviews, Throwback SF and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Vintage SF Month: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp

  1. Mark says:

    “A book in which I travel to Rome in 535 would be short and boring.”

    You said it. I mean, it could possibly be exciting – I’m sure I’d unexpectedly die at the hands of some dagger wielding Roman or some such – but yeah, definitely short.

    I loved the unexpected cascades of complications. One invention begets the need for several others, and so on.

    And you’re totally right about the humor (and, for that matter, the cutthroat romance)…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    I would read a book where you die brutally and in excruciatingly gory detail!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Redhead says:

    what a fun find! Double entry accounting breaks my brain, but the concept of a proto-corporation, shares, and growing wealth sounds fun, and humorous. I always got a kick out of “this is how a futures market works” bits in that Neal Stephenson book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Welcome to Vintage Month! | the Little Red Reviewer

  5. lydiaschoch says:

    This does sound like a good read! I’m going to see if I can find a copy of it. Double-entry accounting grabs my attention, too. Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: December 2020 Month-in-Review and 2020 Year-in-Review | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  7. Lexlingua says:

    “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.” Good grief, such lofty ambitions! And gah, those covers — I feel those old sci-fi book covers are the best — they speak stories of their own.
    Followed you over from #VintageSciFiMonth meme. I just finished reading Zelazny’s Lord of Light myself, and I’m already thinking of my next read. See you around!

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      One could question whether propping up an incredibly sclerotic society that relied heavily on slave labor would be the best move for humanity. The so-called Dark Ages have a pretty good record for innovation, not to mention manorialism/feudalism being a step up, morally, from a slavery-based economy.

      I have that top cover. I love it. I will say that the art director apparently ascribed to the “covers with exposed butt cheek always sell better” school of thought.

      I own a copy of Zelazny’s Delvish, the Damned, but I haven’t read it. I will be interested to hear your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. jeboyle2 says:

    I thought this book was fascinating when I read it in college; enough so that it triggered a brief dive into the history of that time. Good grief, what a bloody mess. I was led to it by reading the Incomplete Enchanter stories, which I thought were much more humorous. I guess it was Fletcher Pratt that had the light touch, not de Camp.

    Regarding Zelazny, if you’re just getting into him, you’re in for any number of good reads. Dilvish the Damned is a collection of straight fantasy that I thought was quite good. Lord of Light is a classic of science fiction (clothed in mythology). I’d recommend This Immortal as well; it tied Dune for best novel and is Post-Atomic war SF with fantasy elements. Zelazny is remembered mostly for the Amber books these days, but he wrote a great many other stories and he was a heck of a writer.

    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      Thanks for the recs!

      I do want to read more de Camp. The three unread de Camp’s I own are Conan the Swordsman (co-written with Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg), his novelization of Conan the Barbarian (written with Lin Carter), and The Glory That Was.


  9. Fedmahn Kassad says:

    Your comment about De Camp lacking in a sense of humor reminded me of an anecdote in a memoir from a Sci-fi writer I read years ago. I think it was in Pohl’s “The Way The Future Was”. De Camp is at a party at someone’s house of maybe a convention party and was seen to be walking around taking notes about whatever joke got the most laughs. The memoirist said that De Camp just could not figure out what made something funny and was studying the phenomena very analytically.
    Thanks for the good review of a book I have read several times.

    Liked by 1 person

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