de Camp, L. Sprague: Lest Darkness Fall

I’d been vaguely meaning to read L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall for a while, and Jo Walton’s post about it on brought it back to mind. It’s a very short book and seemed like moderately light reading.

My opinion of it is much closer to Chad’s than Jo’s: some good bits, but too much of its time for me to really get into. As Chad notes, the characterization is thin at best (particularly, I think, of the women); I also had the sense that the political plot would have worked much better if I knew more history. And a really egregious bit of Eurocentrism at the end left a bad taste in my mouth.

I do like the technical, rather than political, aspects of the book (minor spoiler, ROT13: V jnf fhecevfrq naq cyrnfrq gung ur qvqa’g trg thacbjqre jbexvat), in the same way that I liked the nonfiction Engineering in the Ancient World. If that’s your kind of thing, you might just stick to the first half of the book, which I probably should have done.


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  1. Considering where Islam had the most impact and caused most cultural upheaval — Persia and North Africa — I think it’s Eurocentric to call attempting to nip it in the bud Eurocentric.
    I do agree that it’s a book you’ll like more if you know the history — though you probably know enough of it from reading the Sarantium books.

  2. Now see, I hated that book. And hated it for a simple reason: what raging egomania caused that shmuck to think he had the right to change history? And what kind of shmuck thinks that technology will necessarily change history for the better?
    It is possible I am just Mark Twain through and through on this one (although I also agree with Chad’s opinion). I disrespected the story, and doubly disrespected the author for writing it.

  3. Jo: maybe Eurocentrism isn’t quite the right word, but I cannot believe that, if Padway had found himself earlier in time, he would have casually suggested the complete prevention of *Christianity* on the ground that it would “subvert[] the rule of both the Persian Kingdom and the East Roman Empire”–and so whatever you call the different treatment, I really dislike it.
    veejane: the bit about Islam at the very end tips me toward your point of view, alas.

  4. One could argue that Padway wasn’t so much interested in preventing Islam as he was in diverting Justinian’s attention to someplace that wasn’t Italy.

  5. One could, but that doesn’t change the actual content of his comment.

  6. vejjane: Now, see I don’t understand where you’re coming from at all. Are we really living in the best of all possible worlds? If not, why not try and change things? Padway had seen what was actually going to happen to the world-centuries of darkness, with civilization largely lost, and a population living on the knife edge, never more than one bad harvest away from a famine. How can you not try and do something?
    Could things turn out worse? It’s possible, I guess. But doing nothing ensures a pretty bad outcome. To put it in another scenario: you wake up in March 1865. Do you let the Lincoln assassination proceed?

  7. Are we really living in the best of all possible worlds? If not, why not try and change things?
    Of course we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. However, it takes some damn nerve to say to oneself, “Self, I don’t like X event that affected the lives of millions of people (in many complex and diverse ways). I know, how about I change it (and consequently change those millions of lives)!”
    Sure, maybe it will change some of those lives for the better. Maybe for the worse: nobody knows. It is some pretty grandiose thinking to say not only that you have the right to change millions of lives without their consent, but that you have the power to make the outcome definitely positive (for everyone’s definition of positive).
    And it’s really that grandiose thinking that repels me: capital-P Progress; a definite goal that everyone should agree on, and those who don’t agree are crazy or just plain wrong; and the certainty that technology is the unambiguous key to that progress. It’s a very imperial viewpoint, very much of a “let me fix that for you, little lady/benighted native/colonial underling” attitude, that I loathe and abominate.

  8. Okay, but again, Padway saw disaster looming (I think it’s fairly well settled that post-Roman Europe was, in fact, in a pretty bad way for centuries). It doesn’t strike me as crazy-or arrogant-to try and avert that. Certainly, one could act super arrogantly in this situation-I’ll assassinate Justinian and seize the throne for myself!-but that’s not really what Padway does (I’ll concede the Islam stuff is legitimately a problem). His interest is preventing the Dark Ages. His actions seem to have relatively little to do with personal power, and more with keeping civilization going. Maybe he’s wrong to free the serfs and introduce the printing press, but how, exactly?
    Does the ‘ “let me fix that for you, little lady/benighted native/colonial underling” attitude’ really obtain here? Padway really knows that bad days are coming. The locals don’t. You could argue he actually has a moral obligation to do something to try and prevent them. If you see John Wilkes Booth walking by with a pistol, how do you not stop him?
    I agree with you that changing history for personal gain is off limits. But if you had the chance to avert a known terrible outcome, wouldn’t you have to try? No, there’s no way of knowing the ramifications (cf. Fry’s Making History), but there’s no knowing the ramifications of my actions in the here and now, either. All I can do is make the best of things. I don’t really think Padway acted any differently.

  9. Who gets to choose for me whether a change in my life is positive or negative? That right, to choose for other people, is never in doubt in the character’s (or author’s) mind; he gets to decide for everyone thanks to his extra information.
    This is openly, straightforwardly imperial. It’s a benevolent form of imperialism, to be sure; but it’s still an imperial attitude towards history. And really, it’s a totally crap attitude for an historian to have! He approaches history as if he knows everything already, as if history is just a series of predictable factors for him to manipulate, as if history had no people in it struggling to make their own decisions. The reason the secondary characters are all made of cardboard is that they don’t matter; or else one of them might have stepped up and asked, “Say, Padway, what if we want the Dark Ages?”

  10. Is there any historical event that you would alter, if sent back in time? Or would the good of preventing say, Mao’s rise (likely saving several million lives), be outweighed by what you view as arrogance in using foreknowledge?

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