Lest darkness fall by L. Sprague De Camp

This book is regarded as a classic of science fiction, though it can read rather datedly nowadays. An archaeologist on assignment in Italy is hit by a thunderbolt, and hey presto! he’s been flung back in time to the Roman Empire. With his foreknowledge of the course of human history, he sets about accelerating the progress of Roman society, with the aim of preventing the fall of “darkness”.

Ostensibly, the ‘darkness’ Sprague de Camp writes of is the Dark Ages. He makes his character introduce printing so as to allow the free dissemination of ideas and advance Roman society and technology so that the Dark Ages would not happen. And he succeeds in putting his “inventions” in place. But are we sure that Sprague de Camp meant the Dark Ages?

The contemporary Italy that we see at the beginning of the book is Mussolini’s Italy. Is it possible that, through the medium of a pulp science fiction novel (albeit one with a bit more intelligence about itself), Sprague de Camp was suggesting that America should awake, encourage the free flow of ideas, and prevent the fall of a different kind of darkness across Europe and the world? Or indeed, that by putting free thought and discussion into place a thousand years before the Renaissance, his hero would not only prevent the medieval Dark Ages, but the Dark Age of 20th century fascism?

I believe that no work of art, no matter how trivial or slight, can avoid referring to the time and place it was created in. If we accept that view, then ‘Lest darkness fall’ is an anti-fascist tract, disguised as a time-travel story. And perhaps it changed just enough minds to help prevent the fall of darkness in our own time.

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