Lest Darkness Fall (1939) is a standalone SF Alternate History novel. This story was originally published in Unknown. It begins in Rome, Italy, just prior to the start of World War II.
In this novel, Martin Padway is an American archaeologist from Chicago. He is quite shy and hates confrontations.
Tancredi is an Italian archaeologist. He has a rather interesting theory about time.
Nevitta Gummund's son is a Goth farmer. He lives about eight miles up the Flaminian Way.
Thomasus the Syrian is a banker. He is honest, but you have to watch him.
Fritharik Staifan's son is a Vandal. The Byzantines had driven him off his estate with only the sword at his side.
In this story, Martin is the passenger in a small fiat driven by Tancredi. He hates the way Tancredi drives. Like most Italian drivers, Tancredi uses both hand to emphasize his points.
Martin is a very careful driver. After Tancredi almost hits several cars, Padway is holding onto the seat with both white knuckled hands. Hopefully Martin with get to his hotel in one piece.
Tancredi discusses several subjects, some in their joint field, but others on a variety of subjects. His discussion of time, however, is the main topic, despite side excursions into related areas. He thinks that certain locations in space and time are stressed at certain periods and people can be thrown back in time. Sometimes, these people start branches to the tree of time.
Martin asks Tancredi to drop him off at the Pantheon. He sees the usual Italian loungers near the temple. As he approaches the temple, a lightning strike lands near him. His vision is overloaded for a while and he drops about two feet onto a pavement.
When his vision clears, Martin still sees the temple and the loafers. Yet he notices that the men are now wearing while tunics. The pavement is stone instead of concrete and the traffic is gone. In fact, the neighborhood and roads are not the same.
After arguing with himself, Martin decides to use Tancredi's theory to explain the changes. If he is being delusional, he will wake up later. First, he tries to find a policeman. None of the locals knows where to find one.
Martin inventories his possessions and decides most of them are worthless in this time. He asks strangers about a moneychanger. Finally he locates a man who will exchange his coins for local money.
The moneychanger refuses the nickels, but offers a sum for the rest. A local Goth thinks that the coins are worth more. He helps Martin get half again the original value. They talk for a while and Martin gives Nevitta some medical advice. In turn, the Goth give him the names of a lawyer, a doctor and a banker.
Martin visits Thomasus for a loan. Of course, such a thing is ridiculous, but Thomasus asks how much. Martin tell him and Thomasus say no way, but asks about collateral.
When Martin says he doesn't have any, Thomasus says no deal. Martin tells him about Arabic numbers and Thomasus agrees to let Martin teach his clerks. Then he gives Martin the loan.
Martin wants to refine wine into brandy. He hires a foreman and then a couple of helpers. After the first batch is ready, Thomasus drinks more than he should have and decides to takes Martin out to a local wine shop. They soon find themselves in a religious argument.
Martin meets Fritharik in the bar and soon hires him as a bodyguard. He also learns not to argue about religions. It leads to even more violence than arguing politics.
This tale leads Martin into building a printing press. Then he starts printing a local newsletter. That almost gets him into politics, but he points out the risks to a scribe now working as a reporter.
Martin also creates a limited liability corporation to build semaphore telegraphs lines. That brings him to the attention of the garrison commander and then to the Gothic King. The king only asks why he was not invited to buy shares.
Martin tries to prevent the Dark Ages, but finds much resistance. This does not have any sequel, but has been very influential. Although it was not the first novel to use this approach (see A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), it was the initial novel in the SF Alternate History subgenre.
Highly recommended for de Camp fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of time travel, alternate worlds, and a bit of romance. Read and enjoy!
-Arthur W. Jordin