1939 - Lest Darkness Fall
1939. The German occupation of Czechoslovakia is complete. Hitler issues a warning to Jewish financiers against stirring up the world, finishes closing up the last Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany, and establishes an agency to encourage Jews to emigrate. Yes, all the other countries are busy turning away Jewish refugees, but that’s not Hitler’s problem. He is now ready to move on to the next stage of his plans – pre-war diplomacy.
Germany withdraws from the Anglo-German naval agreement and the Polish-German non-aggression pact, negotiates the Pact of Steel with Italy, and signs the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Soviet Union, in which the two countries agree to divide up Eastern Europe into separate spheres of influence. Hitler is ready for war.
On September 1 at 4:40 am Central European Time, German shock troops invade Poland, triggering a declaration of war from the United Kingdom, France, India, Canada, South Africa and Nepal. The United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and the Irish free state declare their neutrality. World War II has begun.
German advancement is rapid. 8 days after the invasion begins, Warsaw is placed under siege. 17 days after the invasion begins, the Soviet Union joins the fray. 36 days after the invasion begins, the Battle of Kock ends the Polish campaign, and the Polish resistance moves underground. The Germans and Soviets divide up Poland, and all the Jews in German territory are relocated to Ghettos.
Could the German invasion of Poland been prevented? If the Great Powers had launched a war against Hitler instead of appeasing him after he annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia; or, if the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression had been prevented; or, if Germany had been divided up into its constituent states after the Great War, instead of being left unified, crippled and angry; or, if Britain hadn’t voted to significantly reduce it’s armed forces during the interwar period; or, if time travelers had successfully killed Hitler’s parents then maybe WWII could have been avoided. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone can know. However, L. Sprague Camp explores a similar idea in his alternate history novel Lest Darkness Fall, a book about a time traveler who seeks to prevent the Dark Ages.
Lyon Sprague de Camp (1907-2000), was an American author, who is one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1938-1946). De camp’s output and credentials are considerable. In his sixty year career de Camp managed to produce over 100 full length novels, as well as many short stories and works of poetry. He wrote science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, historical fiction, and non-fiction. De camp’s awards and titles are also impressive, and these include being named the third Gandalf Grandmaster of fantasy (after Tolkien and Fritz Leiber) at the 1966 WorldCon, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, which he received in 1984.
When it came to writing style, de Camp adopted what he considered to be a rational approach. The story had to make sense, and this meant avoiding technological or scientific concepts, which he considered impossible, such as hyperspace or faster than light travel. Those he did use, were explained to the reader, and they constrained him as an author when it came to what his characters could and could not do. This was also the case with the magical systems in his fantasy writing – they had to have rules which made sense. In Lest Darkness Fall, this meant finding a way to rationalize the method of time travel, setting the protagonist’s technological expertise at a believable level, and constraining the innovation attempts to the technological limitations of the time period (no guns!)
The time traveler is Martin Padway, an American archaeologist who in 1938 is visiting the Pantheon in Rome. Padway was invited to Rome by Professor Tancredi, who in the opening chapter explains his theory of time travel: when people slip back in time, their actions do not alter the present; instead a new branch of time is created, and the original timeline remains unaffected. History has weak points, in places like Rome where many famous events have occurred, and only in one of these weak points is it possible for a person to accidentally fall through a crack back in time. Shortly afterwards, a freak lightning flash sends Padway back in time to 535 AD.
Padway’s immediate concern upon arriving in Rome is survival. Most of what he is carrying is impractical for the new time period (traveler’s checks), the Latin dialect the natives speak is foreign, and as far as he can tell he is stuck. Fortunately for him, he has twentieth century knowledge, and this enables him to start a successful brandy business, and become financially stable – after he introduces Arabic numerals for accounting purposes.
The next concern Padway has to face is the impending Dark Ages. Italy is currently under the control of the Goths who maintain freedom of religion and don’t interfere with the urbanized Roman society they control. However, Italy is under threat of invasion from the Byzantines, and if Padway doesn’t do anything Rome will be besieged and sacked three times. Padway has no desire to live through these events, and it’s going to require all of his twentieth century knowledge to prevent them from happening.
I enjoyed this book, but was also frustrated by it. De Camp invested a considerable effort in making a believable time travel story, and this can be seen in the various historical details, and Padway’s attempts to improvise technology and change the society around him. The characters are all fun and enjoyable, the plot is light-hearted, and there are a lot of moments that make you laugh. At the same time, I had a difficult time connecting with the characters. Never at any given point am I given to feel that the stakes for Padway are real. He approaches the challenges he faces as intellectual problems that need to be solved, and he views his obstacles as frustrations, not life and death issues – which is what they actually are. Also, there are some glaring holes that really stood out to me , such as the logistics issues. The book includes armies being mobilized fast and moved throughout the country, but nowhere is any effort given to explain how they were fed and equipped, and this really bothered me; especially when considering all the other efforts de Camp invested in the other details. All-in all, I’d say this book is a pretty good alternate history, but it could have been better.
The Omer today is eternity in foundation, both of which are appropriate for the year and the book. World War II was a fundamental event that changed the history of the twentieth century and the Jewish People, and the fall of Rome changed the course of the entire Western civilization. These events took place in the past, which means they are set in stone (unless you have a TARDIS or Delorean), but their legacy is still felt in the present, and will continue affecting the future. The Fall of Rome and the Dark Ages taught us (among many other things) that good hygiene prevents plagues, which is why you always need to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, and the Holocaust paved the way for the state of Israel and the beginning of our national redemption. These are some important gains, and we need to take them into account before we risk them by sending any time travelers to the past.