Thursday, February 25, 2010

On second thought, let's go ahead and change history completely.

In last week’s post, we took a look at the Time Wars novels, in which the protagonists were desperately trying to prevent time travelers from changing history and thus endanger the entire universe.

But what if changing history simply created a separate alternate universe that could peacefully coexist with the original? What if a time traveler were free to alter events in whatever way he could?

That was a handy concept for archeologist Martin Padway, the hero of L. Sprague de Camp’s classic novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939). Because Padway sets out to do nothing less than prevent the Dark Ages.

At first, Padway is just trying to survive. He gets abruptly tossed back in time to Rome in the 6th Century AD. As a scholar, he speaks enough Latin to make himself understood and he manages to trade some of his modern pocket change for more spendable coins. But he’s gotta eat, so he comes up with a clever way to make a living.

He gets a loan from a banker, teaching the banker’s accountants Arabic numerals and double-entry bookkeeping in lieu of collateral. (Why are Arabic numerals such a big improvement? Try doing some long division using Roman numerals and see how long it takes.)

He then builds a distillery, turning out brandy that’s stronger than any of the wines available at the time. Soon, he’s making money hand over foot.

The whole book is like that—Padway isn’t an action hero (though the book has its share of action sequences). He’s an intellectual who thinks out his actions and uses his eclectic knowledge to introduce his new “inventions” into the world. Some of the stuff he does—like building a printing press—are obvious. Others, such as selling stock to fund a company that builds a network of semaphore towers between major cities, are downright brilliant. Heck, he even introduces the concept of the “Help Wanted” sign.

Padway eventually comes to realize that he has a real chance to stave what would be nearly a thousand years of barbarism. Knowing that Italy is about to be devastated by a prolonged war, he reluctantly involves himself in political and military affairs. That’s where most of the novel’s action adventure stuff comes in, as Padway proves to have a talent for political machinations and a good memory for modern military tactics.

de Camp’s strengths as a writer—his sharp wit, his clever plot twists and his ability to create likable supporting characters—are all highlighted throughout the novel. He puts in a lot of little touches that give the story humor and verisimilitude. I love a scene in which Padway has to explain to a grouchy accountant exactly why his “new” number system has a symbol for zero. “Who ever heard of figuring interest on a loan at no interest?” complains the accountant. Padway’s occasional attempts at romance with 6th Century women are largely played for some good laughs.

And de Camp presents Padway as smart and well-educated, but not omniscient. Padway has to experiment quite a lot to come up with workable ink and paper for his printing press. He never does figure out the proper proportions of charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter for making gunpowder (though he does “invent” a workable crossbow).

It all helps make Padway and his adventures seem believable. L. Sprague de Camp turned out a lot of great science fiction and fantasy throughout his long career, but Lest Darkness Fall is arguable his best work.

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