Thursday, June 28, 2012

The worst thing about time travel is the lack of deodorant.

Science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp was a smart guy. It shows in his prose. He never came across as pretentious--in fact, his prose is witty and highly readable--but his wide vocabulary and knowledge on myriad subjects keeps his intelligence fully on display for his readers.

Heck, I consider myself a fairly well-read guy with a pretty decent vocabulary, but when I just re-read The Glory That Was (1952), I was using the auto-dictionary function on my Kindle an awful lot.

de Camp even describes an island has having "the shape of the Hebrew letter vav reversed" and apparently assumes that his readers will just nod wisely and think "Okay, I got that."

But, as I said, he never comes across as pretentious. The Glory That Was is an unusual and very entertaining science fiction yarn, full of gentle humor without ever turning into a parody or satire.

It's set in the 27th Century. There's an Emperor of the World, but he's more a figurehead than a political leader. Still, he has enough pull to arrange to have Greece surrounded by an impenetrable force field.

When people of Greek descent begin to vanish, two-fisted journalist Knut Bulnes decides to investigate. With him is portly classical scholar Wiyem Flin, whose wife is among the missing. The two figure out a way to bypass the force field in Bulnes' yacht, but the boat is then rammed and sunk by what appears to be an ancient Greek trireme.

Getting ashore, the two men find themselves in what is apparently Greece in the time of Perikles, just before the Peloponesian War breaks out. But have they gone back in time, or is it all an elaborate hoax?

Much of the story depends on Bulnes and Flin figuring out a way to answer this question. de Camp takes the bizarre premise and moves the story along logically within that framework, building up a nice level of suspense and inserting a couple of well-described action scenes.

But the best part of the novel is the fun de Camp has showing us how the two 27th Century guys deal with being in the pre-industrial past. Flin, for instance, is fascinated by the prospect of being in Periklean Athens, but he soon gets sick of having to walk everywhere--of the lousy food and bad wine--of the lack of being able to get a cup of tea--of the bed bugs and the absence of personal hygiene.

de Camp also has some fun presenting Sokrates and other philosophers as delightfully flawed human beings.

The humor is never mean-spirited--it simply plays off the foibles of human nature. That was one of de Camp's strong points and it's why his books and short stories are always so much fun to read.

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